Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Certain Word for Successful Mission: A Sub-Plot in the Story

During its fifty-plus years, what has Christianity Today magazine said when it comes to scholarly analysis of the Bible? My current series of posts is exploring that question, with a special focus on Old Testament studies.

At this point, I want to give attention to what might be considered a tangent. This post is about one sub-plot in the story. It deals with questionable ideas and their impact on Christian mission. In the pages of Christianity Today, it is not simply the case that the Documentary Hypothesis of the Pentateuch or theories about multiple Isaiahs, are wrong simply because they fail to square with the facts, merely because they refuse to go where the evidence leads. More than that, according to CT, the confusion that the misguided theories create serves only to undermine the church’s evangelistic mission.

For example, a few months before Cyrus Gordon’s first article on pentateuchal criticism came out (see previous post), a piece by Carl Henry recalls the author’s recent speaking engagement at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Henry, pictured in this post, was CT's first editor-in-chief. As he explains, during the question-and-answer session he was asked about his views toward higher criticism and its relationship to Christian faith. “And my answer, now as then,” he wrote,

is that modern criticism has shown itself far more efficient in creating faith in the existence of manuscripts for which there is no overt evidence (J, E, P, D, Q) . . . than in sustaining the confidence of young intellectuals within the churches in the only writings that the Christian movement historically has received as a sacred trust. Modern criticism too often bestows prestige upon the critics by defaming the sacred writers. [1]

Here we get a glimpse of the evangelical emphasis on the mission of the church to instill and sustain faith rather than to merely prove that the methods and conclusions of higher criticism are incorrect. In this instance, the defense of the Bible is a means as well as an end. The end is the promotion and sustenance of genuine Christian faith.

Along the same line, a 1965 piece by Otto Helwig stands out. A missionary working in Teheran, Helwig tells of his discussions with prospective converts who assure him that another of their teachers (presumably another Christian missionary) has taught them that the Bible contains errors. Based upon his experience in attempting to convert Muslims in Iran, Helwig announces his belief that critical appraisals of the Bible are “detrimental to the goal of extending the Gospel, particularly among Muslims, who hold such a high view of the authority and infallibility of the Koran, or among Jews with their high view of the Old Testament.” Even those who teach in Middle Eastern mission schools present theories “about J, E, D, and P and different Isaiahs” which do not “directly inform a non-Christian about the Gospel.”

Helwig says that to the ears of these prospective converts, critical theories sound like “a discrediting of the Christian religion.” Thus, until a Bible teacher accepts “the Bible as truth, . . . he cannot be a fully effective witness to the saving work of Christ.” Helwig goes out of his way to leave to the side the whole question of the how much truth said critical theories contain. For him, it is imperative that the missionary “take the leap of faith.” Only then does he stand on the side of effectual certainty. [2]


[1] CT, III (March 30, 1959), 5.

[2] CT, X (November 19, 1965), 15.

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