Evangelicals believe that the canonized Scripture is the authoritative and inerrant word of God communicated to the ancient authors under divine inspiration. The 1978-1982 Chicago statement of inerrancy and hermeneutics is held to be the standard by evangelicals today to define what they mean by inerrancy.

Inerrancy and the "final edited version"

What I don't understand is why do I frequently hear that the use of historical criticism is discouraged or even prohibited in evangelical circles, if what matters for inerrancy is the final edited version of each Biblical book (what Chicago terms as the lost "original manuscript")? Of course, historical criticism can be used by non Christians to show that some Biblical books were not authored by the traditional author (such as like Moses for the Pentateuch, or Isaiah for the whole book of Isaiah). But inerrancy doesn't require us to believe that they are the sole authors. Therefore, if we use historical criticism judiciously while holding that behind all the editing and authoring process to arrive at the eventual form of each Biblical book there was God's providence and God's revelation inspiring every author/editor contributing to the final edited version, why are evangelicals against it?

Providence over preservation of each Biblical book across ages

Secondly, don't evangelicals believe that God not only guarantees the inerrancy of the "final edited version" / "original manuscript" of each book, but also providentially preserving the various copies of each book, as each book was copied through the ages (producing the many versions in the codices and fragments that survived), so that throughout the 2000 year Christian history every believer has access to an accurate-enough copy? In my understanding, the Chicago statement "applies only to the original manuscript which no longer exist" (cf. wikipedia). Although lost, today we still have a rough copy of the "final edited version" of each book, which "can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy" (Article 10).

Therefore, isn't today's constructability of a roughly accurate copy of the "final edited version" the most important consequence of the doctrine of inerrancy? If that's the most important consequence, what is the problem with historical criticism?

Comparison with the Catholics' use of historical criticism

In contrast, since the mid 20th century, the Catholic church has been more open in using historical criticism judiciously in the interpretation of Scripture, also covered in Dei Verbum, a functionally equivalent document to the Chicago statement. From a 2015 talk by Timothy A. Lenchak, SVD The Fiftieth Anniversary of Vatican II’s Dei Verbum (emphasis mine):

This insistence on going back to the spirit of the times was confirmed in 1964 by a document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission on The Historicity of the Gospels (Sancta Mater Ecclesia). Note that this document was published during Vatican II but before the final text of Dei Verbum was approved. It had great influence on Dei Verbum, especially on paragraph 19. Both documents note that the text of the Gospels as we have them was affected by three distinct historical traditions: (1) the historical Jesus; (2) the oral preaching of the apostles; and (3) the work of the evangelists themselves. “Implicit in this scenario is that the Gospels are not necessarily ‘literally’ true in every detail, as the process allowed for accretions and alterations over time. This teaching now appears in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#126).”

This is enabled through the influence of the Nouvelle théologie thinkers which includes Joseph Ratzinger (a peritus to the Second Vatican Council, who later became Pope Benedict XVI) who was instrumental in having Dei Verbum approved in the council. The fundamental principle is through a concept of revelation and inspiration that is more personal and sacramental rather than propositional as explained in these articles:

While the use of historical criticism for Scripture seems settled, more work still needs to be done for historical criticism for Tradition. From the abstract of a 2020 book Dei Verbum: Scripture, Tradition, and Historical Criticism (emphasis mine):

The Council Fathers at Vatican II struggled to negotiate the Council's teaching on divine revelation with regard to the teaching of Trent, but more immediately with regard to the modern theology of the Magisterium and the modern value of historical criticism that had recently been recognized by Pius XII as having a legitimate role in the interpretation of Scripture. Dei Verbum's teaching stressed the unity of Scripture and tradition in the revelation of God's word, but never considered the role of historical criticism in the interpretation of God's word in tradition that it affirmed in God's revelation in the biblical word. This article argues that the recognition of the legitimate role of historical criticism in the interpretation of tradition remains an issue of needed development in the teaching of Dei Verbum.

"final edited version" / "original manuscript" vs. text edition

I understand that the "final edited version" is not clear cut because there can be multiple editions depending on various priorities given to various surviving codices / fragments. For NT books we have a Textus Receptus edition still used by the KJV family of translations, or the Nestle-Aland edition used by the majority of modern translations. But creating and choosing the "right" edition is a task of textual criticism rather than historical criticism, a separate issue and beyond the scope of this question.

  • '... the version we have today ...' What version do you mean by that ?
    – Nigel J
    Apr 13, 2022 at 15:28
  • @NigelJ Inerrancy (as understood by Chicago) protects the original manuscripts. I'm aware that there are KJV and non-KJV camps. Choosing which one is the "true" one is not the task of inerrancy doctrine. But the consequence of inerrancy is that we still have preserved in the 21st century 1) both textus receptus and critical editions; 2) all codices and manuscript fragments that are preserved to 21st century. Those heritage are available for both camps to use to create their own preferred translations. Apr 13, 2022 at 16:08
  • Many (not all) practitioners of historical criticism treat naturalism as an axiom that cannot be questioned. Since most evangelicals (and numerous other Christians) reject naturalism, they are understandably skeptical of any conclusion that relied upon naturalism as a premise. Naturalists, of course, would likely express equal & opposite concerns regarding any conclusion that relied upon inerrancy as a premise. These views may not be diametrically opposed, but there is great tension between them. Apr 13, 2022 at 16:35
  • @HoldToTheRod Thanks. I just cannot see why evangelicals would object when it's the Christian scholars who are using the method. They of course believe that God's providence and revelation was behind the inspiration of the author/editor/revisionist. In contrast, since about 50 years ago, the Catholic church made judicious use of historical criticism. Apr 13, 2022 at 16:46

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The Wikipedia article you linked to explains that "historical" criticism involves several methodologies, including source, form, and redaction criticism, all of which are readily accepted and practiced by evangelicals.

Any seeming opposition to historical criticism is probably really more based on the non-traditionalists who call themselves "historical critics" or "higher critics" and whose conclusions include rejecting the in-text authorship of the Epistles, claiming that the Pentateuch dates to the time of Josiah or later, etc. These conclusions are often based on very thin evidence. If you haven't read the classic satirical take on the Documentary Hypothesis, New Directions in Pooh Studies, definitely give it a read. Almost everyone acknowledges that the Bible shows in many places signs of later editorial work. Many, possibly most, scholars of Genesis would say that it is a compilation of many early texts. Those texts could even have exclusively used Elohim or Yahweh. I don't think it's even out of the question that some of the texts we have now could be a translation into later Hebrew from a more ancient Hebrew (or other language) source which has been completely lost. What evangelicals don't accept is that any of these are evidence that the Jewish Law was fabricated in the time of Josiah or later, and it is conclusions like that, as well as any rejection of in-text claims of authorship, which would be considered contrary to the inerrancy of scripture. No evangelical scholar would want to ignore any evidence presented by historical critics, but they would dispute that their conclusions are reasonably derived from the evidence we have.

I think there's also a sense of the practical fruitlessness of source and redaction criticism. (Form criticism is however much more productive, as recognising and understanding text forms can reveal a lot about the intended meaning and purposes of a text.) I remember consulting a large commentary focused on source or redaction, I think in the Hermeneia series, and despite it having lots to say about the source and forms of the text, had almost no useful insights for a deeper exegetical understanding of the text, for developing theology, or for pastoral applications or preaching. Even at the best of times, these methodologies are of limited use to either academics in Biblical Studies (aside from other higher critics) or theology, or to Christians in ministry or just living as an informed God-following life. Huge amounts of scholarship gets produced based on these methodologies, but I think a lot of it is largely consumed only by academics in the same bubble that produces it.

David Clines writes:

We should therefore, in my opinion, not only be asking, Is the source analysis of the Flood narrative, or of the Pentateuch generally, true, but is it valuable? Is such a theory useful? Should I be interested in it? It is arguable that the theory, even if true, may not be very useful or very important. It might well be that scholars in a certain period might value more highly questions that are completely different: questions about the ideology of the biblical texts, for example, or about their theological value, or about their literary character, or about their characters (not excluding Yahweh), or about their effect on their readers—to say nothing of simply exegetical questions, the Pentateuch being the least and worst commented on part of the Hebrew Bible. To such questions the history of the formation of the Pentateuch may have very little to contribute. Even if the Pentateuch was composed from pre-existing sources, it is not those sources that one is studying when answering questions about the text that now exists, and that has indeed been the only text that has existed for the last two thousand years and more.

Consider that even in the Synoptic Gospels, where source criticism is perhaps most useful, while it may be able to tell us where a passage came from and how it was transformed, it gives us no certainty to why it was transformed in that way, and the author's intentions we hypothesise must fit into the purposes we see in the text read as a completed artefact. You can be a great exegete without any of these methodologies, but you can't be even a competent exegete if all you use are the methodologies of historical criticism.

  • So basically, it doesn't violate evangelical doctrine of inerrancy but only of limited practical application within the evangelical circle to deem it largely irrelevant? What about someone like Gary Rendsburg who proposed using internal evidence that Genesis was composed during David's time and as a result produce some insightful interpretations that are still consistent with evangelical theology? Apr 13, 2022 at 23:46
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    @GratefulDisciple Not even irrelevant. It's one tool that occasionally can be very useful, but more often than not just produces curiosities. And probably produces far too many apologetic distractions as people treat the higher critics' thinly-evidenced hypotheses like strong arguments that need to be refuted!
    – curiousdannii
    Apr 13, 2022 at 23:48
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    I don't know Gary Rendsburg, but evangelical scholars would consider his arguments with appropriate weight. If it's supported by textual evidence then those insights would be great to have. That's a very different situation from those who call the Jewish law a fabrication of Josiah's era.
    – curiousdannii
    Apr 13, 2022 at 23:52
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    Practical fruitlessness of source criticism... Ouch! =). Ironically, though, I actually agree with a number of your critiques of source-criticism, and find your post engaging, +1. Oh, and New Directions in Pooh Studies is a brilliant classic. Apr 14, 2022 at 2:47

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