By Jay Mills

I was a very lapsed Episcopalian in the late 1960s and 1970s. I left to join the revolution, the one that never panned out in bringing a better world. In the meantime, I became what can only be called addicted to the excesses of youth culture. I did horrible things and was utterly lost. I went to the campus minister at West Virginia University and asked him a test question: “Is it okay for me to sleep with my girlfriend?” He responded, “Yes, if you love her.”

Wrong answer. I never went back.

In time I was swept up in the Jesus movement of the 1970s and (re)converted through the ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ (now renamed CRU). I was clean and new, and — through the cross of Christ — forgiven of the horrible things I had done. I returned the stuff I had stolen and tried to make amends to those I had hurt. Making amends continues.

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In time I transferred to a smaller school, West Virginia Wesleyan College, to marry my fiancée (different woman) and major in religion. I wandered back into the Episcopal Church, while embodying the fundamentalism of Campus Crusade. I battled my way through a religion degree in college and then through seminary. There were a whole bunch of us who fought biblical criticism. We had experienced the living God. We did not share the (often unacknowledged) bias of biblical studies since the Enlightenment — that miracles do not happen. When miracles are reported in the Bible, alternative explanations must be found. This is a huge driver, in my opinion, of secular biblical scholarship.

The first chink in the armor of my evangelical belief structure was in my first year in seminary, when I read Thomas L. Thompson’s book debunking the Abraham cycle. I could not handle it, but I knew he and others like him were the future of Old Testament studies. So, I switched to the New Testament department. The Rev. Dr. Reginald H. Fuller took me under his wing. He was as radical as they came, a semi-Bultmannian. But he left me alone to find my way. He taught me to think. He let me use evangelical scholars but insisted that I read liberal scholars as well. He was a worthy mentor.

In time, while in parish ministry, particularly late in my ministry, I began to cave to the most critical elements of biblical scholarship, particularly on my first love, the Old Testament. I accepted the premises that there were no patriarchs, no exodus, no covenant at Sinai, no wilderness wandering, no conquest of the Promised Land. I was privileged to learn Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek along the way so I could do the requisite scholarship. I still believed the stories were inspired, just not historical.

I began to collaborate with a friend of mine of über-critical credentials, Dr. Lisbeth Fried of the University of Michigan — issuing in a couple of joint papers. I have treasured her collaboration.

My latest field of study was trying to ascertain the origins of the Torah. I was reading those who still believed in the documentary hypothesis (that the first five books of the Old Testament are a conglomeration of at least four distinct sources), those who believed in modified forms of it, and those who have moved on from it. My one growing observation was that there are no real checks or controls on the scholarship and its hypotheses, such as there are in the hard sciences (I was originally going to be a biologist). Positions can be argued persuasively and eruditely and can be refuted in equally persuasive and erudite essays — but there are no controls to determine which argument is accurate. It is like the wild west. I began to question the entire enterprise — one that posits the origins of the Torah in the Persian Period, or the Hellenistic Period, or the Hasmonean Period, or even later. There is simply no way to ascertain the truth.

I came upon an idea. I read the eighth-century prophets (Isa. 1-39, Micah, Amos, and Hosea). Isolating the passages about events or customs established in the Hexateuch (Genesis through Joshua) offers a thumbnail sketch of the entire Hexateuch. I began to wonder if this is not the control for the issues at hand. In the eighth century, the events of the Hexateuch were known widely. I began to wonder whether, in fact, the Hexateuch — or at least the traditions behind it — are far more ancient than current scholarship posits. And I began to wonder whether the evangelicals who converted me were not, in fact, correct on the reliability of the Hexateuch — in fact of the entire Bible.

The lack of controls in biblical scholarship troubled me more and more. It vitiates any true knowing of what theoretical constructs are historically accurate. One can trace the rise and fall of “the assured results of biblical scholarship” again and again since the Enlightenment. I finally decided that I wanted off the bus. I have returned to my evangelical roots, with the proviso that I learned a thing or two along the way.

I realize that Genesis 1-11 contains the best history the ancients could write, but it does not describe the history of early humanity. It does embody the belief, one I believe paleo-archaeology bears out as historical, that early humans had a magnetic attraction to violence and evil. You see, I believe that homo sapiens killed off the other hominids such as the Neanderthals, the Denisovans, etc. (I believe they were all one species, the definition of species being able to breed and create fertile offspring. Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA in modern humans bears out that they did interbreed).

I believe that with Abraham we hit historical reminiscences — vignettes, really. I believe in an exodus and conquest two centuries earlier than was commonly posited, when at least some scholars believed in them. I believe that these events took place during the 18th dynasty in Egypt, with the conquest happening in the Late Bronze Age. Remember that only three cities were destroyed: Jericho, Ai, and Hazor. The rest were cleared of residents and then lived in. There would be little evidence of changes in ethnicities (Deut. 6:10-12; 12:29; 19:1; Josh. 24:13; Ps. 105:44). Besides that, Joshua and Judges indicate just how much of the land was not captured until much later. Thus, we shouldn’t be troubled by a lack of archaeological evidence. The events were of a nature that we shouldn’t expect much of it.

In short, I have returned to a belief that the Bible is authoritative and inspired and that the events narrated in it happened, no matter how miraculous and hard for moderns to believe. I am not an inerrantist. That belief is a cul-de-sac. But I am willing to take the biblical text at face value unless compelling evidence leads me to do otherwise. For example, I do not take the books of Job or Jonah as history. They read to me as short stories. But I could be wrong.

It has been a long and circuitous journey home to my roots, one for which I am thankful. I had found the lack of historical moorings of my more skeptical days quite unnerving for my faith.

The Rev. Jay Mills was ordained in 1980 after matriculating from Virginia Theological Seminary. He has been married to Karen B. Mills for 46 years and has two grown children, and five grandchildren. He currently resides in Waxhaw, North Carolina outside Charlotte. He is retired but serves as part-time associate at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, Waxhaw, North Carolina.

3 Responses

  1. Daniel Mrtins

    Thank-you for this. I was *raised* in the evangelical milieu that you inhabited for a time, attended an evangelical college where I was exposed to the documentary hypothesis and the basic gospel criticism (though none of it was overtly endorsed). I embraced Anglicanism as a young adult, then got a fuller dose of modern criticism in seminary (Nashotah, which even in the 80s leaned slightly conservative on biblical scholarship). After a good bit less angst than you endured, I arrived at essentially the same positions you describe as your own, and this is how I taught to Bible through my active ministry (now retired). Critical insights don’t scare me, and I often find them helpful. (Fuller’s lectionary commentary was one of my go-to volumes in sermon preparation.) But it’s all God-breathed.

    Reply

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