He Died for His People, Not the Elect

The classical Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement is problematic in several ways, even if it does contain a nugget of truth. One of these problems is simply bad exegesis, which in turn results from an unbiblical hermeneutic. A key place where this problem manifests itself is in limited atonement prooftexts like this one:

She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.
Matthew 1:21

The argument for limited atonement tends to read “his people” here as a reference to the unconditionally elect, a timeless mass of individuals chosen for salvation. Moreover, proponents frequently take this for granted, not seriously considering the possibility that the people to whom the verse refers might be a different group. (Indeed, this could be true even if limited atonement were correct.)

There is very little, if any, evidence that the Bible ever directly refes to a transtemporal elect consisting of all the redeemed in all ages (though of course some statements indirectly apply to this whole group). This doesn’t in itself prove that no such group can be defined, of course, but it does create a problem for the limited atonement reading of verses like Matthew 1:21. For there is a more natural referrent for the term “his people” when the context is the Messiah. This is simply Israel.

There is intertextual support for this reading. Take the following verses, for example:

In [the Messiah’s] days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’
Jeremiah 23:6

God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.
Acts 5:31

Of this man’s offspring God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised.
Acts 13:23

The identity of the Messiah was bound up with being the representative of the people of Israel. This was a primary function of the monarchy. When Israel fell into a repeated pattern of sin during her quasi-anarchist theocracy in Judges, God raised up a king upon whom fell the corporate responsibility of keeping the covenant. David was the exemplary king who remained basically faithful to Yahweh and thus typified Christ. Jesus came as the Greater David, taking up the mantle of Israel’s corporate representative so that He could act on her behalf and bring her salvation. Jesus was Israel when He died on the cross, and He died for the sins of His people, His subjects as the King of the Jews. This is still the context of Matthew 1:21, where Jesus identified specifically as the Son of David and His ancestry is traced back to Abraham.

Of course, some will likely respond that “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.”1 Jesus died for Israel, sure, but this Israel is the true Israel, which is the elect. This response, however, has two flaws. First, and more controversially, it fails to recognize that Paul’s argument hinged on a new development in the constitution of Israel. Formerly, Israel was defined by flesh in the form of Torah observance and ancestry.2 Now, with the accomplishment of justification in Christ’s death and resurrection, Israel is defined by the Spirit around union with the Messiah. This point I have argued elsewhere and will not elaborate on here. Second, this is simply not an identification which is supported in the relevant contexts. As I mentioned above, Matthew 1:21 comes in the context of Jesus as the Son of David and heir to the Messianic throne, a role which is definitely representative of Israel corporately.

This applies to a handful of other texts, as well. Isaiah 53 speaks of the Servant dying for “my [God’s] people,” which there is no contextual warrant to read as referring to anyone but Israel. Many verses which speak of Jesus dying as an atonement for “many” may well also have Israel corporately in mind, although I think it is marginally more likely that the word has no specific meaning except the vastness of the number of people included. When Colossians 2:14 speaks of Jesus “erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands”3, Paul is talking about charges accumulated under the Torah, which was given to and only directly condemned Israel. When the Bible says, then, that Jesus died for the sins of His people, the first and foremost referent is Israel corporately.

However, there are two qualifications which must be made to this. For one, Israel is never just Israel. Election is by nature a representative status. The elect represents others to God and God to others.4 When God condemned in Christ the sins of Israel under Torah, He also condemned the sins of the whole world which Israel had summed up in herself. Israel was not any different from the other nations,5 and in their constant rebellion against God they epitomized and intensified the rebellion of all, so atoning for Israel meant atoning for the world. This reality, however, is not necessarily in view in texts which speak of Christ’s death for His people.

The other qualification is that sense still remains in which some texts certainly do speak more specifically of Jesus dying for the Church (though even this usually refers to the temporal, historical Church rather than the group of the eternally elect, at least directly). John 10 and several parts of Revelation emphasize this. Jesus died for His sheep, and these sheep were, at least to begin with, believing Israelites in direct contrast to unbelieving ones, though it also included believers far off. This operates on a couple of levels which do not necessarily correspond to what limited atonement says about the matter. Specifically, it involves the facts that Jesus died for Israel, but Israel was transformed in the process to consist of believing Jews and Gentiles rather than those who are Jewish by flesh, that the formation of this redeemed new form of Israel was an essential goal of the atonement, and that the Church is therefore the one people in whom forgiveness and justification actually take root and effect in their real lives. Thus it is right to speak of this new people reborn from Israel through Christ’s atoning work as the proper object of the atonement, even if it is not true that the atonement was in some sense “limited” to the sins of a timeless company of elect individuals. For more on this point, I refer you to a closely related post I made some time ago.

In all of this, there remains no particular reason to see any text as referring specifically to Jesus dying exclusively to pay the precise penalty for the sins of a particular company of elected individuals. That’s just not how the Bible thinks, or how the Bible talks about the people of God.

He Died for His People, Not the Elect

More on the Anthropology of Sola Fide: Enfleshed Forensics

My last post on the anthropology of justification, much to my pleasure, received some noteworthy criticisms. There were basically two objections:

  1. The proposed anthropology seems to solve the anthropological dualism in a technical, pedantic sense, but the solution is purely nominal. Now there is simply an alternative dualism, between the newly-conceived ontological self and the moral self, and justification still seems to be unrelated to the lived life.
  2. Closely related to this, Leithart’s account seems to express an undesirable theological voluntarism/nominalism. God’s will alone determines who and what things are without any particular controls of nature or reality. Seems like a high price to pay.

These two issues are very closely related, so I will not try to address them individually but will rather, hopefully, solve them together by unpacking Leithart’s wider account of anthropology and atonement.

How does Leithart’s account of anthropology avoid being purely formal or nominal? What prevents is from replacing a legal fiction with what basically amounts to a trick of ontological wordplay? In large part, the key here is to realize that Leithart does not allow for the existence of a “pure status” or a merely nominal relationship. If his ontology is relational, it is also realistic and enfleshed. It is impossible to have a relationship or status, either legal or personal, which does not have a concrete effect on the real-world life of the subject, both externally and internally. Indeed, the “external” application of a status pushes the “internal” self organically into a new shape and direction.

Another Leithart book, The Baptized Body, provides the President of the United States as an example. When a man is sworn into the presidency, nothing magically shifts in his inner “stuff.” Yet there is a definite change which cuts messily across the inner/outer, status/action distinctions. To quote (excuse the political anachronism):

William Jefferson Clinton is inaugurated President, and what makes this rite of passage real is that thereafter everyone treats Mr. Clinton differently. Everyone defers to him, calls him by his new name—”Mr. President”—cozies up to him seeking support for legislation or urging him to ignore human rights abuses in Indonesia or China. Each of these is a reaffirmation of his new status, and each affirmation reminds Bill Clinton of his status and the obligations it places on him. He is constantly challenged to make what the Westminster Larger Catechism might have called an “improvement” on his inauguration, to live up to the obligations imposed by the rite of inauguration.1

Immediately upon inauguration, starting from the outside, the new President’s life changes. People treat him differently in concrete ways, which in turn changes his own concrete existence. His thoughts, feelings, and behaviors begin to adapt themselves to his new relationship to everyone else, even when they do so badly. Instead of skimming past news about international political developments, he begins to think of them as relevant to his life, to feel anxious or excited or concerned, and to take actual steps toward addressing them (writing speeches, calling White House staff members, setting up meetings with foreign leaders) from his official position. Even just the shift of awareness, the self-knowledge of a new identity, physically changes what’s going in their brains and eventually forms new neural pathways if the identity is reinforced inside and out.

For Leithart, then, justification works similarly. The ontological change which is involved in the transition from an unjustified man to a justified man is not purely nominal, not just a semantic game, but affects his actual existence. Now aware of Christ’s sacrifice, God’s mercy, and his membership within the community of the righteous, his mind, heart, and practice immediately start to shift. The proper, natural, and organic direction of this change is toward the image of Christ. The newly justified man may not change in this way (either by refusing to change or by changing in a wrong direction), but this is a perversion and an absurdity. It is like a man who, after his wedding, moves off by himself and continues dating other women. And like such a man, the justified man is essentially different, and worse, if he behaves in such a way as a justified man than he would be if he were an unjustified man. Either way, he is changed in the concrete, lived life. For his patterns of thought, feeling, and action have shifted permanently in a new shape and direction, whether in faithfulness or unfaithfulness. And though both routes are possible, the “natural” direction of the essential change wrought by justification is sanctification.

If it seems like a stretch that justification conceived of in these terms should lead organically to sanctification, it must be understood that the mere consciousness of justification alone does not, in Leithart’s account, bear the full weight of transformation. Rather, the Spirit employs several effective means to cultivate fruit in the justified, all of which hinge on the accomplishment of justification in history. The mechanics of this are bound up with Leithart’s view of atonement. Any discussion here would be incomplete without this atonement framework, but this post will run far too long if I provide such help, so I will have to reserve it for a third and (probably) final post.

More on the Anthropology of Sola Fide: Enfleshed Forensics

The Anthropology of Sola Fide

One of the most common claims Catholic and Orthodox critics make of Protestant theology is that the doctrine of forensic justification by faith alone amounts to a legal fiction. God calls us righteous, but we really aren’t righteous. God cooks the books, and the whole atonement is a clever gambit by which God uses Christ’s death to pull the wool over His own eyes.

This objection appears to have some force at face value. After all, if God just counts (“imputes”) Jesus’ righteous life to for us, and in fact nothing has changed about us personally, how is this not a legal fiction? (Sadly, some Protestant theologians have actually bit the bullet and granted this point.) How, then, is the atonement anything other than a divine self-con? Most importantly, how can the God who justifies by fiction really be just?

This is a problem that Peter Leithart addresses in his book, Delivered from the Elements of the World. He answers it with an appeal to a genuinely Protestant anthropology. The problem, he argues, arises from an anthropological dualism between the true inner man and the outward status. On both sides, people tend to assume that there is a hard and fast line between who someone really is (on the “inside”) and how they relate to the persons and societies outside of them. I have relations to the parties with whom I interact, but my own inner being is hermetically sealed from these, and they cannot affect who I am.

This anthropology naturally leads to the problem mentioned above. If this view of human nature is applied to justification as a forensic declaration based on faith, then we have the awkward situation of someone having an artificial external relation of right-ness toward God which is in fact fundamentally disjoined from the actually real reality that I am still a sinner on the inside.

Leithart claims, however, that the solution to this is neither to bite the bullet (confessing justification as a legal fiction) nor to hang the declaration of righteousness on the infusion of virtuous habits into the real, inner self (the Catholic error), but rather to correct the anthropology. We must remove the dualism between inner and outward human existence, allowing the two to interpentrate and mutually define each other. For Leithart, then, a truly Protestant anthropology means that a change of outward status in relation to a person, especially if that person is the first and foremost Other, namely God Himself, goes all the way down. To quote:

[I]ndividuals are what they are not because of what they are in themselves but by virtue of God’s regard for them…If this is the case, then justification—which by strict Protestant definition is a change in my status before God—changes me in the profoundest way possible. If I am what God judges me to be, then justification marks a transition and change in my identity, a change in my being and person—not in addition to a change of status but precisely because it is a change of status. It can even be said that the verdict changes the answer to the question of essence: if a thing is what God names it to be, if it is what it is in relation to God, then when God names me as “righteous” and counts me as righteous, I am essentially different. When God says “this sinner is just,” I am no longer the same man I was before that declaration. I continue to sin; but I now sin as one who has been redefined as a righteous man, and so remade. Once God declares me righteous, I simply am righteous…Protestant soteriology supposes a radically decentered self, a self whose real, factual existence is determined by the free and gracious word of God.1

The claim works like this: for a Protestant anthropology, to be a “righteous man” is not fundamentally to be a man with a certain level of internal moral character. It is to be a man whom God favors, to have a right standing with Him. This is something that comes sheerly as a gift of gratuitous forgiveness, and it turns the “sinner” into a “righteous one.” God simply has to say, “With you I am well pleased,” and it is so. Since, according to Leithart, the inner man and the outward status are inextricably intertwined, this reaches down into the roots of our being and redefines us.

Marriage, Leithart explains, can be an analogy of this. The declaration “I now pronounce you husband and wife” is pure declaration and does not involve a magical ability to tinker with someone’s soul. Nonetheless, it changes the people involved. Five minutes ago, they were simply a man and a woman. Now they are husband and wife. Nothing on the “inside” seems to have changed, and yet their whole identities and moral characters have been radically transfigured. They have new obligations, new privileges, new titles, new public significance, and a new future, all because they have, simply by a declaration of authority, been given a new relational status. The night before, if they had slept together or slept with anyone else, it would have been fornication. Tonight, if they sleep together, it is chaste, and if they sleep with anyone else, it is adultery. Even the moral quality of the very same actions has been changed by what seems to be a “merely external” change of status.

Moreover, if a man cheats on his wife, it is not because he is, somewhere deep within, still “really” an unmarried man. If the woman turns out to hate her husband, it does not mean that their marriage is only a legal fiction. The reality of the marriage is a public and objective relationship, with which the parties involved can either act appropriately or inappropriately, faithfully or unfaithfully.

Getting this is the key to Leithart’s proposal for the anthropology of sola fide. When God declares us righteous by faith alone, that is enough for us to simply be righteous. It is a fact: this man is justified, on right terms with God, because he has been baptized by faith into God’s righteous Son. If the justified man goes on to sin, it is not because his real self inside is an unjustified sinner, but rather because the justified man is misbehaving as though he were still an unjustified man. He still lives in the flesh until his resurrection, and so he still capitulates to fleshly behavior, but by virtue of his relationship to God in Christ he is a justified, righteous man.

Basically, it’s a relational anthropology. We are who and what we are in relation to others, and God is the ultimate Other, so He ultimately defines who and what we are by His free declaration that we are His righteous people in Christ.

The Anthropology of Sola Fide

Feminism Wishlist

I’ve never really identified with feminism for various reasons. This, of course, doesn’t mean that I necessarily oppose all forms of feminism. I simply think that the most common forms which exist today are basically of the same essence as the most radical forms, and therefore any kind of feminism which isn’t fundamentally disordered is too small of a minority to warrant my identification.

But, hypothetically, I could identify with, or at least offer my affirmation to, a feminist subgroup if it abstained from certain key errors which affect the majority forms. Some people will undoubtedly say that any “feminism” which meets my criteria is not feminism at all, and if so I am fine with that. But I’m also sure that there are at least a few people who would say otherwise.

So, for clarification and for the fun of articulating myself, what follows is some criteria, a “wishlist” perhaps, which a form of feminism would have to meet for me to assent. These are in no particular order, except the order in which they came to mind, which probably indiciates some loose association with how important I find them. I will call this kind of feminism which I could hypothetically affirm a “natural feminism,” because I believe the problem at the heart of most forms of feminism is a denial of the natural order of creation.

  • A natural feminism would have no overlap with the LGBT movement. Instead, it would oppose it, recognizing its intrinsic hostility to the feminine, and to the entire order of male and female which makes it possible to speak of the feminine at all.
  • A natural feminism would recognize that not all differences in the behavior, customs, and social positions of men and women are due to artificial inequalities. Many instead emerge naturally and organically from human nature, and they cannot be removed except by the dangerous task of tampering with human nature.
  • A natural feminism would ensure that women are not confined to the home without encouraging them to leave it behind. It would recongize that mothers are the heart and life of home, that the tendencies of women to center life in the home are first rooted in their maternal natures rather than patriarchal oppression, and that the home today suffers from self-inclosure in a way that makes it overly restrictive and even oppressive to women who choose to take it up as their domain. Such a natural feminism would wrestle with the tension between the reality of the home’s limitations/complications in modern life and the pain which the natural dependence of the home on the woman for life and warmth.
  • A natural feminism would detest pornography and all kinds of sex work as degrading. It would understand that the commodification of women’s bodies desacralizes them, objectivizes them, and even consensually exploits them. No room would be made for the hypocrisy of a society that wars against rape and sexual harassment while simultaneously selling to men a lifestyle of viewing women as impersonal sex objects.
  • A natural feminism would not seek to put women into the pastoral office. It would recognize that the pastor’s role as a shepherd, contender for the faith, and most importantly representative of Christ are initmately associated with the masculine virtues and the masculine symbolism of God as Father and Son. Instead, a natural feminism would recognize that feminine virtue and feminine symbolism are most closely associated with the Holy Spirit as life-giver, nurturer, communion-maker, sustainer, and consummator, and with the congregation of God’s people as Daughter of the Father and Bride of the Son. It would therefore seek to enable women in the Church to robustly fulfill these roles using all of their gifts, taking back to the women some of the perrogatives and responsibilities which are often erroneously given to the pastor.
  • A natural feminism would see the contradiction inherent in trying to elevate women by making them more like men of fleshly glory. It would recognize that the action hero, the assertive and aggressive character, and the alpha corporate executive are not true role models for feminine virtue, even if they can somewhat (and imperfectly) function that way for masculinity. While it would protect the right and opportunity of women to fulfill such roles when the situation requires or even permits, it would not hold them up as examples, but instead would prefer role models who exemplify compassion, patience, grace, aethestic sense, nurture, tolerance, etc. (For more on masculine and feminine virtue, I recommend this post. For more on the problem with idealizing masculine women, see this Mere Orthodoxy post from Alastair Roberts.)
  • Finally, a natural feminism would entirely repudiate any project of making humans androgynous. It would allow the natural differences between men and women to function despite their various difficulties and problems. Instead of trying to solve gender problems by artificially elininating gender difference through state and social force, it would focus on mitigating the social and physical factors which turn the goodness of the natural sexual order into a burden and trial.

If anyone finds a feminism along these lines, be sure to let me know, and I’ll cheer it on.

Feminism Wishlist

Remnants of Revelation

I recently read a book by Winfried Corduan called In the Beginning God: A Fresh Look at the Case for Original Monotheism. If the title doesn’t make it obvious, the book is about the evidence (primarily the case of Wilhelm Schmidt) that the first religion of mankind was ethical monotheism (i.e. that there is a Supreme Being who made the world and gave humanity a code of morality). This contrasts with the common, evolutionary view that religion progressed from primitive ancestor or spirit veneration to animism to polytheism to monotheism. Much of the argument for this book works with the apparent preservations of an ancient monotheistic belief system in the cultures of small, primitive tribes around the world.

Corduan’s book was rather fascinating, and of course it raises a fairly obvious question if he is correct. If mankind started out from the beginning with a full-blown belief in a singular, personal God who made the world and instituted moral law, then from whence did this belief come? Corduan, a Christian, briefly argues that there is hardly a good answer except that such a Being actually did reveal Himself to primitive humanity.

So, all of that is great to think about, but it provoked me to some other theological considerations related to primitive revelation. If we take a basically literal reading of Genesis, we have to reckon with the fact that all people on the planet are descended from Noah and his family, all of whom knew God personally. This means that any such remainders of primitive monotheism as Corduan takes note of in his book must trace back to Noah’s family. And yet these remainders are also clearly quite corrupt, enough so that it is hard to imagine that tribespeople who follow these beliefs are actually following the true God.

Of course, this does raise the question: how long were people still worshipping Yahweh? Obviously, Noah’s sons must have known God for who He really is. And the modern tribes do not. So over the last few thousand years, it seems that God’s memory was slowly forgotten. But how long was true worship still a thing? How long were people around the world, not just in Israel, still aware of and faithful to the true God? Presumably, there could have been a number of such people who end up legitimately saved for many years. How long? Centuries? Millennia?

This brings up even more questions. Just how much of the original revelation does one need to know in order to be counted as believing in the true God? At what point in the process of forgetting and mythologizing did the cultures which retained monotheism shift from confused Yahweh-worshippers to idolaters? And is it possible for some people in such places to have continued clinging only to those beliefs which genuinely originated with God’s self-disclosure at the beginning of history, so as to be saved?

The possibility of remnants of revelation which, at the very least, kept a saving witness to God alive throughough the world for many years is, I think, not to be discounted and should be relevant to debates about the fate of the unevangelized. We also have to weigh whether this thought would open up the possibility of some rare people being saved even today by their memory of the oldest special revelation. It might not do so, but if nothing else it’s worth wondering about. Such an idea might be called “revelational inclusivism” and would, at least at a prima facie level, seem to be free of some of the problems with traditional versions of inclusivism which try to grant salvation to people who lack any special revelation. After all, in such a scenario people would only be saved by clinging in faith to whatever small bits of special revelation they had left. But on the other hand, even this might have its own issues when put to scrutiny. And it does not seem unlikely that we may have to conclude that man’s original knowledge of God became everywhere too corrupt to save anyone much too long ago to be relevant today.

Yet Paul did say that God had not left Himself without a witness…

Remnants of Revelation

The Nicene Nerdcast: Against Traditional Marriage

This post is the second epsiode of my new podcast, The Nicene Nerdcast. Again, there’s not much for me to introduce, and if the title has you prepared for outrage, I give you my kind-hearted laughter. This episode is the result of some recent reflections on the nature and purpose of marriage, along with its problems today.

Download this episode

The Nicene Nerdcast: Against Traditional Marriage

On a Historical Old Testament

Yesterday I posted the following status on Facebook:

The problem with abandoning the historicity of the Old Testament is that every few years another aspect of it is vindicated.

To which I received this response:

Yet we would acknowledge the role that varying styles of literature in the ancient Near East has to play, right? The historical consensus, as far as I am aware (and I’m not necessarily taking a position), is that the Old Testament starts out as more metaphorical and increases in historicity until the time of David, after which it becomes much more reliable. For example, we still have not found any evidence of a large population of Israelites having lived in Goshen around 1400 BC. It makes little difference to me, though, which side turns out to be right, but I’m interested to keep up with it!

I do have some empathy here, but there are several issues involved on which I would like to make a special point. Approaches along these lines are gaining traction in Evangelicalism, both with and without a doctrine of inerrancy. I do not see this as a good sign. The historicity of the Old Testament is more important than even most Christians who believe in it give it credit for. So here are some thoughts on the issues raised in this coment.

First, with respect to literary styles, it is simply not the case that there are any convincing reasons to believe that most, much, or even just a decent slice of the Old Testament is not intended as basically “historical” literature. While there are thematic differences between different parts, and the form of the narratives can vary based on the “zoom” factor, there are no clear shifts in the basic use of narrative from Able to Zechariah. The account of Ezra is literarily much like the account of David which is like the account of Abraham which is like the account of Noah which is like the account of Cain. The only passage which might plausibly seem an exception to this is Genesis 1, which is clearly very different from most narrative accounts. Yet it is clearly not poetry (since it lacks parallelism or most other features of Hebrew poetry), and a narrative account of something which happened before the cosmos was fully in place or humans existed is naturally and necessarily going to be different from other narratives.

This brings me to an extremely important point. It is true that Genesis 1 and basically all the narratives in the Bible have meaningful, carefully constructed literary features and forms. There are chiasms, parallels, recapitulations, non-chronological sequences, modified repetitions, typologies, and all sorts of good stuff. For some bizarre reason, though, people treat this as an indication of a narrative not referring to literal history. If Genesis 1 is clearly arranged into a theologically relevant pattern of forming and filling, with the significant number of seven days being associated with temple construction, then many scholars will be willing to stop with “We see a theological meaning to this text, so a literal, historical meaning is superfluous.” If the Bible presents Noah as a new Adam and Ham as a new Cain, peopel imagine this means that one or both of the stories never actually happened.

This is, of course, logically absurd. Literary richness does not prove, or even vaguely imply, that a story is unhistorical. Indeed, for Christians we must understand that the same Spirit who authored the Scriptures has authored history. We should expect patterns, structures, and typologies with theological significance in real, tangible history. And even if we didn’t have that theological link, it should be recalled that even a perfectly historical event can be written down truthfully but stylistically to produce an account with certain intended levels of meaning beyond the “bare facts.”

Moving on, then, to the point about historical consensus. My friend explained what he understood as the consesus this way: “the Old Testament starts out as more metaphorical and increases in historicity until the time of David, after which it becomes much more reliable.” This is problematic in three ways.

First, for the secular historical consensus, it’s not so much that the Old Testament starts off metaphorically as that it simply starts of as myth or legend with amibiguous relationships to events which may or may not have happened. Whether the events recorded are supposed to have any actual metaphorical significance would be a side debate, akin to the question of whether The Illiad is metaphorical.

Second, for the Christian historical consensus, there simply isn’t one. Even within the relatively small sphere of Evangelical Protestant scholarship, opinions range from quasi-fundamentalist hyper-literalism to the view that almost none of the Old Testament is historically reliable except where it is confirmed by secular accounts. As far as I can tell, there’s not even really a majority view on the historicity of any part of the Old Testament before around the time of the Exile. This is not to deny that there are trends, of course. And the trend seems pretty clear: a dehistoricization of Genesis 1-11 at the very least, but often including much more, especially the Exodus. But this brings me to the third problem with the question of historical consensus.

Third, the closest thing we get to a historical consensus is the stuff on which secular historians agree with a decent number of the moderate Christian scholars. The problem with this consensus is that it is bunk. There are three notable problems with it. First, its arguments against the historicity of biblical events are usually from silence, i.e. “we can’t find extra-biblical evidence for that.” These often, and I mean very often, get overturned by later discoveries. It’s the same story every time: historians said there was no King David, until they found archaeological evidence of King David. They said there were no Hittites, and lo! they found that there were Hittites. They doubted countless minor details of customs and names found in the Bible until more evidence confirmed that they existed in the time the Bible seems to claim. It seems that if we have functional pattern-recognition, we should expect this to be the norm: historians deny biblical claims for lack of evidence, only for evidence to show up later.

The second problem with the historical consensus is that it quite unjustly minimizes the Bible as a historical document. I don’t mean that they simply fail to believe every word as historically true. I mean that they don’t even give it the minimal benefits of the doubt which they extend to other ancient literature, and in proportion they give it much less historical weight where it stands alone than they do most similar works. Basically, in researching and hypothesizing about the Ancient Near East, they try to rely as little as possible on what can be justly called the largest, most internally diverse, and most well-preserved collection of texts from the Ancient Near East. This is bound to go wrong, and it is only natural that doing this for such a distant period of history would lead to tension with the biblical account even if it were mostly correct (or, you know, inerrant).

But the third problem with the historical consensus is a plain historical issue: the historical consesus account of the ancient world is largely constructed on a very weak and increasingly questionable foundation: a hypothetical chronology built from Manetho’s list of Egyptian kings and dynasties. This matter would be difficult to address in detail here, but I’ll give a summary. Almost all historical work on the ancient world around the Mediterranean relies on a specific chronology of Egyptian history. This chronology is based on adding up the lengths of the reigns of all of the Egyptian kings in what we have of Manetho’s work. Two major problems present themselves here, because (1) scholars have noted that some or many of Manetho’s dynasties may have ruled simultaneously in different parts of Egypt, and (2) the conventional chronology requires that Mantheo made few or no errors or intentional falsifications. This produces a host of issues which have the potential, if solved, to radically reshape the history of the Ancient Near East. This appears quite likely to change things in the Bible’s favor. Donovan Courville in his work The Exodus Problem and Its Ramifications analyzes many of these issues, and his work has been followed up by others. Even if not perfect, it opens up many interesting possibilites. This, by the way, is not a mere desperate Christian apologetic. The book Centuries of Darkness argues the same basic point from the perspective exclusively of secular historical academia and has inspired plenty of further research.

All of these issues add up to make the point that the historicity of the Old Testament does not deserve to be dismissed the way it so often is, or really even be approached with half the skepticism usually aimed at it. It might take faith to expect the whole Old Testament history to be vindicated, but if anything it is a reasonable faith grounded in precedent and evidence.

None of this even begins to deal with the theological problems involved with dehistoricizing Old Testament narratives. That alone could be the subject of a book, but in the meantime I think this piece of Peter Leithart satire says the gist just as well.

On a Historical Old Testament