Synopsis of Misusing Scripture: What Are Evangelicals Doing with the Bible?

The question at hand is whether an approach to the Bible that presupposes the faith-based doctrine of biblical inerrancy and stands before the text with “reverence and awe” is a legitimate form of academic and scholarly pursuit? 

See Misusing Scripture: What Are Evangelicals Doing with the Bible? Edited by Mark Elliott, Kenneth Atkinson, and Robert Rezetko. Routledge New Critical Thinking in Religion, Theology and Biblical Studies. London: Routledge, 2023.

By Mark Elliott 
University of Arizona

By Kenneth Atkinson
University of Northern Iowa

By Robert Rezetko
University of Copenhagen and University of Sydney
August 2023

How do conservative evangelical biblical scholars approach the Bible? This is the question that Misusing Scripture scrutinizes and evaluates. The conversation isn’t new, but we hope our volume will stir the fire and elicit more open and public debate among evangelicals and non-evangelicals about how the Bible should and should not be studied within the Academy in academic and scholarly venues.

Before summarizing the contents of Misusing Scripture, let’s remind ourselves how evangelicals evaluate the character of the Bible and approach it in their scholarly work. The two main professional academic societies of evangelical biblical studies in the United States are the Evangelical Theological Society and the Institute for Biblical Research. The ETS, founded in 1949, declares “The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs.” [1] The IBR, founded in 1973, asserts “The unique divine inspiration, integrity, and authority of the Bible.” [2] While the IBR statement does not specifically mention the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, most of its members will hold to it, and in any case many, perhaps most evangelical biblical scholars are members of both societies and/or are affiliated with theological seminaries or Christian colleges/universities that affirm the inerrancy of the Bible. Turning to how evangelical biblical scholars treat Scripture, Wheaton College professors Daniel Block and Richard Schultz probably speak for most when they say, “For many of us, our faith commitments are primary, and we approach the Scriptures with believing reverence and awe.” [3] 

The question at hand is whether an approach to the Bible that presupposes the faith-based doctrine of biblical inerrancy and stands before the text with “reverence and awe” is a legitimate form of academic and scholarly pursuit? We do not think it is, and obviously we are not the first to raise doubts about these and other related beliefs and approaches in contemporary American evangelical biblical scholarship. In recent times, two of the most vocal critics of such scholarship have been Michael Fox and Ronald Hendel. Fox declared that “faith-based study has no place in academic scholarship, whether the object of study is the Bible, the Book of Mormon, or Homer. Faith-based study is a different realm of intellectual activity that can dip into Bible scholarship for its own purposes, but cannot contribute to it.” [4] In the same vein, and in a widely discussed piece, Hendel also critiqued the faith-based scholarship of evangelicals, using the specific example of a publication by evangelical Bruce Waltke that “feature[s] explicit condemnations of the ordinary methods of critical scholarly inquiry, extolling instead the religious authority of orthodox Christian faith.” [5]

Hence the first line of our Misusing Scripture: “Faith-based biblical scholarship: What is it? Is it legitimate? Is it possible?” And, more specifically, the book examines various questions related to evangelical biblical scholarship: How does it work? Is it legitimate? Is it possible? Is the evangelical commitment to biblical inerrancy a valid presupposition? All scholars have presuppositions, but how does especially this one impact scholarly inquiry? (Besides inerrancy, belief in divine revelation, inspiration, infallibility, and the absolute and final authority of the Bible, must also be considered.) Are there topics and fields where evangelicals can and cannot make valid contributions to academic research and debate? Are “evangelical” and “academic” an oxymoron? Always? Sometimes?

The editors’ introduction to Misusing Scripture looks at these issues and related matters. Following presentations of the book’s background, rationale, and objective, attention is paid to defining “evangelical” and examining notions of fundamentalism and biblicism, and scriptural fundamentalism and biblical inerrancy in particular. The central and longest part of the chapter evaluates what scholarship is, or at least is supposed to be, and then offers a dozen specific criticisms of evangelical biblical scholarship that raise red flags about the entire enterprise. For example, the first point underlines the apologetic approach to the Bible that is evident in much evangelical biblical scholarship, and this stands in contrast to the skeptical attitude subsumed within other types of scholarship generally. The introductory chapter then moves on to brief surveys of how “biblical” archaeology is misused by evangelicals to bolster their biblical interpretations, and how their biblical interpretations are misused to impact issues in the public square. The chapter concludes with abstracts of each of the other eleven chapters in the book.

The eleven chapters that follow the introduction are written by the three volume editors and nine other scholars (chapter 7 is co-authored) with expertise on the Bible, religion, history, and/or archaeology. These chapters examine a variety of topics, including inerrancy and textual criticism, archaeology and history, and the Bible in its ancient and contemporary contexts. These chapters are not intended to be a comprehensive review of evangelical biblical scholarship in every aspect and on every topic; rather, they are an illustrative collection of contributions that look at how evangelicals approach, interpret, and use the Bible. Some of the chapters are quite broad, for example Rezetko’s chapter on evangelical Old Testament textual criticism, or Bowen’s on Old Testament violence and evangelical morality, or Scholz’s on evangelical interpretations of women in the Bible, whereas others are narrower in scope, such as Schroeder’s on Deuteronomy 22:13-21 and evangelical purity culture, or Keddie’s on Luke 22:35-53 and evangelical gun culture. The complete lineup of chapters is:

1 Introducing Misusing Scripture: What are Evangelicals Doing with the Bible? — Robert Rezetko, Mark Elliott, and Kenneth Atkinson

2 The Error of Biblical Inerrancy: The Bible Does Not Exist! — Kenneth Atkinson

3 Building a House on Sand: What Do Evangelicals Do When They Do Textual Criticism of the Old Testament? 95 — Robert Rezetko

4 Christian Fundamentalism, Faith, and Archaeology — William G. Dever

5 The New York Times and the Sensationalizing of Archaeological Stories from the Holy Land, 1920–1930 — Mark Elliott

6 “Your Eye Shall Have No Pity”: Old Testament Violence and Modern Evangelical Morality — Joshua Bowen

7 Avoiding the Apocalypse in the Book of Daniel — Ian Young and Thomas J. Elms

8 A Resurrection Fallacy — Bruce Chilton

9 Why Academic Biblical Scholars Must Fight Creationism — Hector Avalos

10 Second-Amendment Exegesis of Luke 22:35–53: How Conservative Evangelical Bible Scholars Protect Christian Gun Culture — Tony Keddie

11 Virginal Blood of the Marriage Covenant: Deuteronomy 22:13–21 in Evangelical Purity Culture — Joy A. Schroeder

12 Essentializing “Woman”: Three Neoliberal Strategies in the Christian Right’s Interpretations on Women in the Bible — Susanne Scholz

We believe the volume provides plenty of food for thought, and we hope it will generate cordial conversation and vigorous debate on these matters and others.

Readers may preview (and purchase!) the book on the following websites:

Misusing Scripture: What are Evangelicals Doing with the Bible?


Google Books


[1] The Evangelical Theological Society

[2] IBR Confessional Basis

[3] From Christianity Today. Print: Daniel I. Block, “Introduction,” in Sepher Torath Mosheh: Studies in the Composition and Interpretation of Deuteronomy (ed. Daniel I. Block and Richard L. Schultz; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2017), 1-6 (3).

[4] From SBL Forum. Print : Michael V. Fox, “Scholarship and Faith in Bible Study,” in Secularism and Biblical Studies (ed. Roland Boer; London: Routledge, 2010), 15-19 (15).

[5] From Biblical Archaeology Review. Print: Ronald S. Hendel, “Farewell to SBL: Faith and Reason in Biblical Studies,” Biblical Archaeology Review 36.4 (2010): 28, 74 (74).


Article Comments

Submitted by Karen Strand Winslow on Thu, 10/19/2023 - 11:51


The editors asked for responses to the question: Is faith-based scholarship possible, legitimate, and/or ever compatible with critical scholarship?
Given their definition of the term “faith-based” and the evidence they provide, i.e., their experience with large swaths of evangelical scholarship, the editors say no and lead the readers in that direction.
Their definition of faith-based is “any attitude or argument resting overtly or covertly on assumptions or assertions derived from religious doctrine” (front matter; loc 4 Kindle). I agree that any study that begins with a point(s) of doctrine or dogma is deductive. This is not scholarship. Their argument is that evangelical scholarship—studies or research presented by evangelicals—always begins this way and is therefore circular. They are focusing especially on the doctrine of inerrancy, held by many—but not all—evangelicals, and how this affects the conclusions of their research, especially that related to higher criticism and archaeology. Their examples of evangelical scholarship are dominated by this pre-determined conclusion. But they seem to assume that research done by evangelicals that does not target certain modernist, evangelical claims, such as inerrancy, is ‘soft’ or not scholarship at all. I disagree. Any scholar, evangelical or otherwise, can do plenty of research that has nothing to do with inerrancy or other points of dogma. No scholar’s research should begin a pre-determined conclusion, whether it derives from religious doctrine or something else. Legitimacy depends on their focus, methods, evidence, and how well their conclusions are based on the evidence.
So, my short response is a qualified yes. Since one of the primary agendas of the Bible’s producers was to build faith in its receivers, should the research of scholars with faith be, for that reason, considered illegitimate? Professor Seeskin’s response that “Reverence and Objectivity [can] Go Together. There is no reason why awe and reverence cannot be combined with critical objectivity” makes sense to me. On the one hand, the editors agree with Michael Fox, who recognized that persons holding religious faith can do biblical scholarship (5, Loc 175). I hope so. For, as the editors point out, most scholars began with or still retain some sort of faith stance. Their curiosity about, reverence for, wish to understand, and/or focus upon the Bible throughout their professional lives (if not vocation in a religious sense) led them to biblical scholarship and teaching. Although many scholars chose to withdraw from faith commitments, directly related to their critical studies, others have not. Their critical studies have enhanced their appreciation of the Bible, not because it is divine, or perfect, or inerrant, but because it has become even more interesting, useful, and its continued existence as a library at the center of faith communities even more astounding.
Fox’s SBL Forum article, is further used as the basis for the arguments of Misusing, when they say that their use of “faith-based” means that unexamined axioms, such as biblical inerrancy (especially) cannot be the beginning, the basis, or the “pre-determined conclusion of a study” and still be called scholarship. Of course not!

To be fair, an assumption of ‘inerrancy’ would be extremely limiting to many kinds of study projects that may seem, at the outset, to have nothing to do with it. A close reading of biblical texts invariably leads to literary and historical contexts and sources, as well as to recognizing theological, social, and political agendas of the texts’ early producers and preservers that would contradict most definitions of ‘inerrancy.’ I believe, however, that some holders of ‘inerrancy’ recognize that it is a confession that the Holy Spirit guided all the various human authors/redactors to produce that texts as we have them, with traceable sources and so forth. Thus, their research can go forward without reference to this dogma; they compartmentalize. (And they privilege the MT over other textual families’ histories, as Misusing points out.)
Confessions cannot be studied, but only confessed. We can study how texts and families and versions of text emerged and their relationships to one another; no one can study the Holy Spirit’s involvement. Neither can a point of dogma like inerrancy be demonstrated or studied. Contradictions, texture, counterclaims, errors or misconstruals of history or of what we now call science can be examined within the texts, but not inerrancy of the soft or hard kind. It is not there.
Neither inerrancy nor, for that matter, Mosaic authorship of the Torah (or most traditional assumptions about biblical authorship) is claimed in the biblical texts. Rare is the biblical statement that written texts were authored by God (although some New Testament verses have been used to this end).
My qualified “yes” must go further in recognizing the problem of inerrancy, for how can one truly be an open to archaeological evidence (of which there is plenty); that disproves features of biblical narratives evidence that simply cannot be harmonized, but not for want of trying, as Misusing illustrates. A modernist approach to the Bible has always been subject to criticism for not allowing for the theological, social, and political purposes of its creators, writing much later than the time of the stories’ settings.
I agree that inerrancy is an odd way to approach the Bible. It is unnecessary. Why should reading the Bible be received, interpreted, and understood under a rubric of error. Inerrancy comes from a relatively recent proposal that God authored the Bible. God could not be mistaken about any detail, historical or otherwise, regardless of the limitations or agendas of the human authors. But even inerrantists recognize that humans were involved, so they retreat to “inerrant in its original autographs” to explain any contradiction or aberration. This is another invented concept, a figment of the imagination, as tracing the complicated history of the formation of the various versions and editions of the Bible demonstrates.
Regarding the emergence of the Jewish Scriptures, I prefer the word ‘produce’ over author or redact, because many people, over a long time, created and creatively handled the texts that became Scripture. They respectfully received and redacted them, their reverence for the ancient texts growing to the point they decided to freeze the process, to attempt to copy them exactly, giving already authoritative texts even more status. Communities of Jews set these texts apart, made them “sacred.” They did not make the Bible divine.
While recognizing that the editors’ stated goal is to examine conventional evangelical approach to biblical scholarship (8, Loc 299), my quibble with this well researched and clearly written book is that they downplay the progressives and the intra-evangelical dialogue too much. The editors begin by saying that evangelical scholarship exerts “enormous influence on the religious beliefs and practices, and even cultural and political perspectives of millions of evangelical Christians in the US and worldwide” (front matter). Later they rely upon and favorably quote representative scholars from the progressive wing of evangelicalism (e. g., Noll, Sparks, Hays, and Enns). Most who accept the term progressive probably do not call themselves evangelicals anymore, given the appropriation of the term in political parlance. Nonetheless, after showing that they align with the criticisms by progressives of inerrancy and other creeds in their intra-evangelical dialogue with traditionalists, the editors sideline them. They include them in their critique of inerrantist evangelicals, because they are a minority among evangelicals. But if evangelical scholarship has so much influence on millions of people, then surely these intra-evangelical disputes do matter, even if non-evangelical scholars do not care. Certainly, progressives have had tremendous influence on (often now ex-) evangelicals. Consider Peter Enns for one and the late Rachel Held Evans, who relied on Enns’ scholarship for another.
Furthermore, they disregard them because they may still personally hold to “the truth-telling nature of Scripture,” and its authority (26, 28, loc 804, 857), as well as “essential tenets of Christianity,” such as Jesus’ incarnation and resurrection. These are tenets of personal faith, and to marginalize progressive scholars because of their personal faith belies the early admission by Fox—and the editors—that criticism of poor methodology and predetermined conclusions is not meant to discount scholars of faith. If their topic was the virgin birth and their research demonstrated that a human impregnated Mary, but they circled back to the virgin birth creedal statement instead of allowing their research to stand, then this would be another example of illegitimate scholarship. But to sideline the progressive critics of inerrancy because they may hold Scripture in high regard or believe in Jesus’ resurrection is to say that the progressives’ criticisms of unhelpful –even harmful—doctrines is not important and that the scholarship of persons of any kind of faith is illegitimate, unless it conflicts with faith teachings (28, Loc 868). The works of Sparks, Hays and Enns, demonstrate that they do submit the Bible to open-minded and open-ended research, as I do.
I have taught in Christian colleges and a seminary, and I hope my teaching encourages my students’ faith in God. The Bible also is a faith-in God-building enterprise. Faith cannot stand apart from truth. Using the Bible faithfully means examining it closely and following wherever the investigations may lead.

Submitted by melliott1 on Fri, 05/10/2024 - 09:58


As I read Misusing Scripture’s introduction, I wonder whether it makes sense to add anything else to such a long list of reactions, blogs, book chapters and even books on misusing Scripture. What I can contribute is a lense from my own corner of the world, Argentina. Latin American scholarship is still in the making, so to speak. Most of us have been trained in the North-Atlantic world, where our particular contexts and perspectives were, for a long time, colorful anecdotes but not part of academic scholarship. This translates into a slow process of integrating our different perspectives into our scholarship, as we grow more confident in our own right to speak with our own voice. Furthermore, our theological schools often had, at least until de beginning of this century, scholars from their respective “mother churches” as part of their faculties. Most Latin American countries do not include Divinity schools in their State universities, leaving theology, therefore, to the private realm of the churches.

Our struggles in Latin America are particularly related to counter colonization, patriarchy, racism, and classism. Today, we also face the consequences of economic and ecological disasters produced mainly by decisions made by others in other parts of the globe.

One of the main issues derived from misuse of the Scriptures is that of a rigid and artificial model of family life, allegedly instituted by God Himself (sic) at the creation of the world as the only valid family model forever. I contend that it is a misuse of Scripture because it forgets that there are several family models in the Bible (see Tom Hanks, La diversidad ¡50! de familias en la Biblia (Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires: Epifanía, 2016) besides the nuclear, binary, heterosexual, patriarcal family model espoused by its proponents (furthermore, these Scripture misusers misread gender theories, labelling them an ideology). Consequences of this misuse go from denying women sexual and reproductive rights to preaching the indisoluble character of marriage, even under violent circumstances.

I contend that they also misread Scripture by deriving from this only family model total denial of female sexual and reproductive rights; “male and female he created them” ends up being the ground for prohibition—only for the female—of premarital sexual relations, prohibition of contraceptives, prohibition of abortion, and blaming the mother for single parenthood. While female sexual and reproductive rights in Ancient Israel might have been denied to most women (at least, those under a patriarchal figure), it is debatable that they be derived from Genesis 1! There is, also, a “hermeneutical leap”, disregarding differences in social and historical conditions that put women in dangerous situations for the sake of fixed and idealized “family” and “motherhood” models (see particularly Susanne Scholz’s examples of essentializing women in the USA). Sadly, I have to attest to the fact that not only Evangelicals are guilty of misuse of Scripture when it comes to gender (see, e.g., “Male and Female He Created Them”: Towards A Path of Dialogue on The Question of Gender Theory in Education, by the Congregation For Catholic Education, Vatican City, 2019,…). Perhaps many of us do not deem the Bible inerrant; yet, we all hold beliefs we are not ready to re-examine in the light of contemporary events or academic consensuses. This is of course no justification for misuse of Scripture by evangelicals.

Mercedes L. García Bachmann, PhD

Institute for Pastoral Contextual Studies, United Evangelical Lutheran Church (Argentina-Uruguay), Adjunct Distinguished Faculty, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (USA).

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.