Derek Newton, “Faith, doubt, and biblical criticism: spiritual survival in the shifting sands.” EQ 82.4 (2010), 326-339.
Newton argues that believers pursuing theological studies will sooner or later “face the challenge of living in the tension between biblical criticism and Christian faith” (339). What he means is that Christian believers will struggle with questions that biblical criticism presents to biblical materials. What should the Christian do? Newton’s paper begins the paper by defining faith, doubt, and biblical criticism and then he looks at the challenges “posed” by biblical and theologies. He provides some “benefits of honest and careful biblical criticism” and strategies with dealing with some of the challenges presented by biblical criticism.
R. T. France expressed the dilemma of this paper in this way:
“Coming from the warm security of an all-embracing doctrine of the inspiration and authority of Scripture, the evangelical student finds himself all at sea. Can he survive in these waters? Should he be here at all? And if he should be here, has he any hope of making a positive contribution to biblical studies, or is he ipso facto out of the game because he is a conservative, and so will not play according to the accepted rules?” (326) These are important questions and are applicable to more than just biblical criticism.
M. J. Brown asserts, “It is possible to develop a love of learning and critical analysis while at the same time deepening your personal faith commitments” (327). Brown is asserting that faith and reason are compatible. It implies that a Christian believer can pursue a life of the mind while pursuing a life of faith.
Newton defines faith as “a human enterprise-something that we as human beings seek to exercise towards a person or object” (328). He thinks it is misperceived that faith and doubt are “polar opposites.” He thinks some people falsely believe that doubt “equals loss of faith, as if faith and doubt cannot possibly co-exist in the Christian life” (329). The author does a good job in putting the double-minded man of James 1:6-8 in its context. He explains how “James is calling on his readers to ask for wisdom in the midst of trials” (329). Newton insists that James is “saying that faith is a decision and commitment to trust God . . . in spite of the doubts that may be pressing on us through a whole range of circumstances” (330). He does not think James is “issuing a blanket statement condemning all doubt” (330). Newton thinks that the opposite of faith is unbelief, not doubt. He defines unbelief as a “persistent attitude involving deliberate refusal” (330). In addition, Newton notes, “Stubborn, willful and deliberate refusal to believe is what receives condemnation in Scripture, not the genuine doubts with which the people of God struggle in all ages and in varying circumstances. God has invested all his power and work in ensuring the permanence of our faith and his available grace to help us cope with his doubts” (330). Newton believes that God will sustain us by his grace to keep on believing.
The author thinks that the challenge of biblical criticism concerns “the nature of scripture and the nature of biblical revelation.” He believes the Bible is both human and divine. It did not fall from heaven. Biblical criticism deals with the human dimension of scripture: literary, historical, and hermeneutical. He asserts that biblical criticism “seeks to use every valid means at our disposal to investigate and understand the purpose, meaning and application of the biblical text” (332).
One additional point made in this article that was helpful was his discussion of Fowler’s stages of faith. He notes how Fowler “is convinced that people move through stages of faith during their lives and that one of these stages involves criticism which he argues is not only acceptable but indeed necessary on a journey of faith” (333). It is true that people should move through stages in their faith and struggling with doubts is part of the journey. Fowler thinks that faith “is a process, rather than a state. He believes as faith matures, it becomes deeper and broader” (333).
Newton suggests some strategies for navigating the troubling waters of biblical criticism. The first one is that some issues require us to hold a “both/and position.” Some issues are not black and white. Second, we should be “healthy suspicious, skeptical” of “some” scholars, but not all of them who do not share our faith perspective. Third, students and scholars should maintain a strong link to a local church. “This will help keep our feet on solid ground and especially so if we can be involved in an active ministry – a practical outlet of service with ordinary people to help us process the things we are learning” (337). Fourth, we should remember the “past faithfulness of God.” Fifth, we should be “suspicious of new and ground-breaking methodologies” (337). We should draw on the riches of the past and not be blinded by the new. Sixth, we should affirm the sovereignty of God. The author writes that there “are some areas of biblical interpretation in which evangelicals will continue to take different viewpoints” (337).