Engaging the Word (In Review)

Derek Ouellette —  February 5, 2011

Engaging the Word: The New Testament and the Christian Believer
By Jaime Clark-Soles
1 Star (out of 5)

In theory Engaging the Word is a great, relatively non-bias thought provoking book designed to introduce Christian believers to the staggering debates related to the New Testament among biblical scholars. I appreciate that challenge. In fact, I write because that is partly my mission too: to present to others some of the more “academic” debates regarding those things which I, as a conservative Evangelical Christian, have always taken for granted.

This book deals with issues of biblical authority, inspiration and authorship. It presents the “Synoptic Problem” and the various approaches argued by scholars. It raises the issue of how many “Pauline Epistles” did Paul actually write and to top things off, it introduces the “Historical Jesus” controversy which is still being debated.

Now I’ve presented you “the theory” and “the aim” of this book. So why only 1 Star? Because in reality my perception is that this book is a liberal manifesto thinly wrapped in a shroud of false humility, where clearly the author is under frustration and duress with bafflement as to why the Christian community would continue to by and large not look to such great scholars as John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg.

In presenting the debates she appears to be relatively non-biased and expresses desire for the reader to come to their own conclusions. But she does this in such a way as to present only two options: 1) the dumb option or 2) the liberal option (disclaimer: Clark-Soles would probably neither use the term “dumb” nor “liberal”). She also does this by looking at almost all the arguments by liberal scholarship without giving conservative scholar any space at all in many cases.

Let me present only one example of each

Conclusion Regarding Pauline Authorship

Clark-Soles, after looking at the (supposed “various”) debates among scholars as to when the Pauline letters were written, challenges the reader to draw their own conclusions. In doing so she gives them two options:

If Paul did write them, then either a) he was an extremely inconsistent thinker, or b) he changed his mind about some of his key theological concepts in a brief period of time. – p.87

Okay, so you are a committed Evangelical believer who accepts scriptural inspiration and/or inerrancy (in whatever form you do), and you have just been “shown” that if Paul wrote all of the Pauline Epistles he is either “inconsistent” or he “changed his mind” about things which you believe God inspired. Both of these options are unacceptable (as Clark-Soles knows full well someone like you would reject these options), therefore Paul must not have written them.

See your options: a) “dumb” option or b) “liberal” option. I opt for option c) conservative scholars are not idiots.

Did Jesus Really Rise From The Dead?

In the section of the book where Clark-Soles presents “the Historical Jesus” debate she centers her attention on the development of the Jesus Seminar (with great favor). These folks are notorious for “voting” by secret ballet in deciding which parts of the Jesus story are “true” and which parts are “false”. (A really scholarly procedure I might add). A great part of their method is laced with assumptions such as the belief that miracles don’t really happen (and yet somehow they believe in “God”). Yet she still pretends to present to “the dear reader” an accurate portrayal of the debate, she writes:

This is not to push the reader to accept one or the other, but to assist you where the fault lines lie in the debate. – p.114

From here she looks at the developing works of liberal scholarship: John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, John Meier among others. The question I want to know is, if this was meant to be a fair presentation so that the “dear reader” were “not to [be] pushed… to accept one or the other” then where is N.T. Wright or Ben Witherington III or the other scholars who have been on the other side of this debate? Well they get a mention on page 113:

Notable critics of the Jesus Seminar include N.T. Wright, Richard Hays, Ben Witherington III, and Luke Timothy Johnsons, all of whom have a clear commitment to “orthodox,” even conservative, forms of Christianity. Their own reconstructions of the historical Jesus have been critiques that fall prey to the same dangers that face all Questers.

Notice that she discredits them for having a commitment to “orthodox” and “even conservative” (oh the horror) views and then she labels those views as “reconstructions”. If they are in line with orthodox Christianity, how can they be called “reconstructions”? It is a ploy of discreditation. In any case, that is all the space allocated to the “other side”.

Later she writes:

If you are a “liberal” Christian, you will gravitate toward the Jesus of Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. If you are “orthodox” or “conservative”, you will adore the Jesus of N.T. Wright… and Ben Witherington III. – p. 121

And yet Clark-Soles “dear reader” was not given an opportunity to read what Wright or Witherington would have to say about Jesus.


In conclusion I felt this book was a work of deceitful intent, and whenever I perceive that my recommendations plummets. I read Karl Gibersons book, Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution. It was the subtitle which drew me in. I was quite angst when I discovered – however good the book was in the issues it addressed – that it did not even consider what the subtitle said. I was also quite perturbed by Scot McKnight’s book The Blue Parakeet. While it claims to be a book designed to help Christians learn how to read the Bible, more than a third of its pages are a defense of Egalitarianism (while avoiding the difficult passages in question). In his defense Scot says that “Women in the Bible” was to be the “test case” subject on how to put the main point of the book to good use. But with the emotions in which that part of the book is written, it seems quite clear that it was “Women in the Bible” that was the point of the book, and the first two thirds was to set up an interpretative approach to help accommodate that goal. I have no problem with that goal; I have a problem with being deceived into reading it.

I have no problem reading the works of liberal scholarship (or books on Egalitarianism or books on the history of Darwinianism). I welcome their work. I have a problem when someone tries to sneak liberal scholarship (or an main viewpoint) in through the back door. Not because I worry that my guard will be down and I may be dooped, but because it could cause a younger Christian to stumble.

The back of this book reads: “This book serves as a wonderful companion to Wrestling the Word: The Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Believer by Carolyn J. Sharp.” Sharp’s book was published at the same time with the same objective only for the Old Testament. I am nearly complete and can assure you that there is a right way to handle these challenging issues, and a wrong way to handle them, and while Clark-Soles has decisively dealt wrongly, Sharp has taken the right approach. In contrast to this review, I look forward to writing that one.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Myron


    Great job at succinctly but powerfully dismantling the wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing nonsense! Yeah, whenever folks demonize biblical and theological acuity solely by appealing to Western post-Christendom’s bias against terms/concepts like “orthodox” and “conservative” their material should just be cast on the rubbish heap. Thanks for saving us the time (and brain cells) we would spent wading through this. Great blog, man.


  • Brian

    Makes me glad I didn’t go to SMU for my doctorate.

  • http://vagantepriest.blogspot.com/ FrGregACCA

    OTOH, Dr. Valerie Karras teaches at SMU.

    A couple of points: first, any serious theory of inspiration does not rise or fall with the question of authorship.

    Second, a text, any text, is liable to Derridian deconstruction when taken in isolation. “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life”. The Spirit is manifested over 2,000 years in the life of the Apostolic Churches, and especially, in the witness of the Fathers and other Saints. Or, to put it another way, if you’ve got bricks, you need mortar to hold them together.