Historical Expertise

Chauncey Who?

Chauncey E. Sanders is anything but a common household name. However for many Evangelicals Sanders is rather well known for having established three tests that demonstrate the “historical reliability” of the Bible.[1] Sermons, religious websites, and other publications celebrate his three tests, often plagiarizing each other in a sort of intellectual incest.[2]

More surprisingly, perhaps, Sanders and his three tests of “historic reliability” play a significant role in the homeschooling “science” curriculum. Through Apologia’s Exploring Creation with General Science, a textbook[3] for 7th- and 8th-grade students, Sanders’s three tests support treating the Bible as a scientific text and turn up on a number of “general science” online flashcards.

Screenshot of general science flashcards
Chauncey Sanders’s three tests for authenticity have worked their way into the “general science” homeschool curriculum.

Who was this Chauncey Sanders? And how did he become fixture in the Evangelical community and a cornerstone of homeschooling “science” curriculum?

Chauncey Sanders seems to have attended Miami University of Ohio.[4] He graduated in 1921, went on to earn a PhD at the University of Chicago in English in 1926, and then moved to the English department at IU Bloomington. Over the next two decades (he was on leave during World War II) Sanders offered courses on, inter alia, methods in literary research and contributed a number of essays on the history of the university to the Indiana Alumni Magazine.[5] He resigned in 1946 to take a position in Washington DC with the Air Force Historical Division. As one of the many scholars working there at the time, he wrote number of reports for the U.S. Army Air Forces, e.g., 7B, 11, 14, 16B, 22 of the Numbered USAF Historical Studies. Sometime around 1950 when the entire office was transferred to Maxwell Field Air Force Base in Alabama, he became an “Associate Professor of Military History” at the recently established “Air University.” In 1952, while at The Air University, Sanders published his only book, Introduction to Research in English Literary History, an undergraduate and early graduate textbook on basic methodological practices in English literary history. He seems to have remained with the USAF Historical Division for the remainder of his career. He died in 1962 gravestone.

Photo of Chauncey Sanders’s tombstone
Chauncey Sanders’s rather simple tombstone.

A decade after Sanders died, the Evangelical Josh McDowell discovered this literary scholar turned obscure government official and extracted from Sanders’s Introduction to Research in English Literary History one small portion for use in McDowell’s own Christian apologetics.

In 1972 McDowell published his Evidence that Demands a Verdict, in which he tried to show the “reliability” of the New Testament by assembling piles of circumstantial historical facts that, in his presentation, seemed to support claims made in the Bible. Sanders makes his appearance in chapter four, “The Reliability of the Bible,” where McDowell mentioned Sanders and the “three basic principles of historiography…the bibliographic test, the internal test and the external evidence test.” In this early work Sanders and his tests are lost in a multitude of paraphrases of and quotations from other authors. McDowell’s strange, quasi-outline structure masquerades as a coherent and logical list of scholarly authorities that demonstrate the truth of the Bible.

Although McDowell’s early book was apparently popular,[6] his 1977 book, More Than a Carpenter, catapulted Sanders and his three tests into the vernacular of Evangelical Christian apologists. Particularly concerned to reply to skeptical or hostile readers (e.g., history professors) who dismiss the truth of the New Testament, McDowell spends more time and effort explaining Sanders[7] three tests that can be “appl[ied] to any piece of literature of history to determine if it’s accurate or reliable:”

  • Bibliographic test—“an examination of the textual transmission by which documents reach us.” For McDowell, this reduces to how many copies of a text survive and how long is the gap between when the text was first written and our earliest copies. For the New Testament, he claims there more than 20,000.[8]
  • Internal evidence test—“determine[s] whether [a] written record is credible and to what extent.” Here McDowell claims that because the New Testament was written by men who witnessed the events and because their accounts circulated during Christ’s lifetime, the New Testament’s account must be accurate (by which he means “true”). Otherwise contemporaries would have pointed out the errors.[9]
  • External evidence test—“whether other historical material confirms or denies the internal testimony of the documents themselves.” McDowell gestures first textual evidence from contemporary bishops (not unproblematic sources) and then to archaeological evidence, which has confirmed certain aspects of the New Testament.

McDowell’s assertions raise a number of problems, but those issues are really just details that accept the validity of his version of Sanders’s three tests. More problematically, he and all the Evangelical apologists following him have misunderstood Sanders’s tests.

Sanders was not interested in demonstrating the truth or falsity of any given document. Sanders didn’t seek to demonstrate the “reliability,” historical or otherwise, of the content of any given historical text. He was, rather, interested in finding a way to demonstrate that a particular document is or is not from the period it purports to be from and, to a lesser extent, was or was not written by the person who purportedly wrote it:

[A]uthenticity demands an affirmative answer to three questions: “Was this work written by the person who is purported to have written it? Was it written at the time alleged to be the date of composition? Was it written under the circumstances and for the purposes alleged?”

Sanders devotes the chapter to explaining his three tests and showing how they can be used to argue that a document is or is not from the period generally ascribed to it. Sanders does not wonder if the content of the document is true or corresponds to historical events. In fact, many of his examples are fiction—stories, plays, etc.—that aren’t true or false in any simple way and are often not true at all, e.g., Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

McDowell and his followers have consistently and fundamentally misunderstood (misread ?) Sanders’s text.[10] Seems somehow ironic that book written to teach people historical methods and techniques for analyzing texts is so consistently misread.

Screenshot of an Amazon review.
Apologists give Sanders’s book good reviews, even if they don’t understand it.

  1. By “historical reliability” they typically mean something like the veracity or accuracy or truth of the text in the Bible (and by “Bible” they most commonly mean the New Testament).  ↩

  2. For example:

    This search will give you more, if you’re interested, but I can’t really recommend that you waste your time.  ↩

  3. I spent a summer reading this textbook in an effort to understand and take seriously the arguments in it. In a series of posts I recounted my engagement with those arguments, which were superficial and repetitive. See these posts. In the end, I concluded that there was little benefit from posting about each of the modules, which added no nuance or sophistication to Wile’s position.  ↩

  4. He distinguished himself as part of the “intellectual aristocracy” by earning all A’s and B’s in his first year. Grade inflation does not yet appear to have been a problem at Miami University of Ohio in 1917, where grades of B or better granted you admission to “one of the most exclusive parties of the year.” Five students had received all A’s. Another 14 had A’s and B’s. See the report in The Miami Student (Jan. 11, 1917). You can find more of his articles and articles about him from the Miami University archive.  ↩

  5. On Sanders’s time at IU Bloomington, see The Department of English at Indiana University, Bloomington, 1868–1970. 87–102.  ↩

  6. At least according to the Josh McDowell Wikipedia page, his Evidence that Demands a Verdict is his best-known book. I am skeptical.  ↩

  7. For McDowell and other Evangelical apologists, Sanders’s identity is of the utmost importance. They never fail to mention that Sanders is a “Military historian.” A “military historian,” they tell us, he has no vested interest in or desire to defend the Scriptures. A military historian is, they imply, free from the taint of Evangelical, apologist zeal. Sanders does identify himself on the title page of his book as “Associate Professor of Military History” at “The Air University.” But given his graduate training in English literature, it seems as valid to call him an English literary scholar. But I doubt McDowell and the other apologists have bothered to find out anything about Sanders and his scholarly training.  ↩

  8. I am not interested in checking McDowell’s numbers or analyzing them or distinguishing between the authority of different copies of the New Testament. We might wonder, for example, how many of 20,000 are early copies, how many copies are derivative, how many variations there are between them, and how we decide which of those variations are valid. What value, in other words, do each of these manuscripts have?  ↩

  9. The assumptions that undergird this logic and the logic itself are labyrinths of confusion and obfuscation. I’ll just move on.  ↩

  10. I doubt that (m)any of the Evangelical apologists have read Sanders’s Introduction to Research in English Literary History, given the cite only page 143 (at least McDowell cited p. 143 ff.) and their insistence on misconstruing his tests.  ↩