The Pure and Undefiled Religion of Critical Biblical Scholarship

UPDATE: After reflecting on the fact that this discussion occurred on a Facebook thread, I’ve removed direct quotes. It’s also been brought to my attention that to include quotes from a private Facebook thread is not allowed by their privacy policy. Please know that their inclusion in the original post was to illustrate the nature of the discussion, not to direct attention to those individuals. My apologies for any offense given in including them in the first place.

I want to make clear at the beginning of this post that I’m arguing against particular comments by particular members at SBL, not the organization as a whole. I am a member of SBL because a) I have benefited greatly from the insights of many of its members and b) I support its mission to “Foster Biblical Scholarship.”

Yesterday on Facebook Twitter Timothy Michael Law posted,

Has RBL merged with the Evangelical Theological Society and not told us?

In the comment thread on the same post on Facebook it became clear that there was some controversy over the review Tom Schreiner’s The King in His Beauty, written by a fellow evangelical. Many of the commenters on Law’s post did not appreciate the fact that someone in the same camp as Schreiner reviewed the book or that said reviewer did not offer any substantive critique, especially at a methodological level. While I can appreciate that critique, it also became clear throughout the comment thread that many of those who posted not only were irritated at the reviewer but more importantly at the idea that evangelical work would be admitted to RBL (and by implication SBL) in the first place.

I then attempted a few times to point out the irony of these biblical scholars’ attempt to exclude confessional scholarship while at the same time accepting and many times promoting a plethora of ideological readings. I also tried to point out that modern biblical scholarship holds to its own presuppositions just as much as confessional biblical scholarship. This comment of mine summarizes most of the points I was trying to make:

In other words, keep your confessional commitments to yourself. In response I’ll simply point out again the plethora of “Asian feminist pansexual reading of Exodus 19” papers at SBL.

And no…, that’s not a conservative evangelical trying to use postmodernism to legitimize myself, it’s pointing out the inherent hypocrisy of asking some people to leave their commitments at the door while welcoming all other presuppositions with open arms. If you want a “non-confessional” society, then have one. But that’s going to mean kicking out a lot more people, or at least excluding a lot more papers, than just confessional evangelicals.

Suffice it to say that there was much discussion on whether confessional scholars ought to be allowed to contribute with their confessional cards on the table, so to speak. At the end of the day it seemed that many wanted to exclude explicitly confessional scholarship and instead rely on the assumptions and methods of critical biblical scholarship. While the former’s stance towards the text can be questioned, it was clear from the comments that the latter should not be questioned, nor should those who do be considered participants in a scholarly enterprise.

“Pure and Undefiled Religion”

To be honest I’m dumbfounded by this entire thread. I thought we’d moved beyond this sort of autonomous, tradition-escaping, scientific positivism in just about every field there is, including biblical studies, but it appears to be alive and well within SBL. (Of course I shouldn’t be too surprised given the 2010 “Farewell to SBL” kerfuffle.) To begin, earlier in the thread everyone seemed to be on board with the idea that presuppositions can be critiqued, that is until I suggested that the presuppositions of modern biblical scholarship be critiqued. This then led one commenter to proclaim that this need not happen and that modern biblical scholarship is about data, not presuppositions. I don’t intend to be unnecessarily incendiary, but I simply don’t see how this position can be held by anybody acquainted with the last 100 years of philosophy. There is no such thing as a bald fact; there are only interpreted facts. So to claim that the SBL is interested only in a dispassionate study of data which leads to presupposition-less, verifiable conclusions makes little sense in light of the insights of postmodernism. Further, as Craig Bartholomew among others has ably demonstrated, the last 250 years of biblical studies have been dominated by and carried along in the current of a whole host of Enlightenment philosophical trends, including Cartesian and Kantian epistemology, Hegelian dialecticism, Heideggerian phenomenology, etc. etc. etc. The Enlightenment was not some gift from the gods of reason dropped from the empirical heavens, but is rather just as much a philosophical movement (or movements) and is thus open to evaluation and critique.

Will the Real Historian Please Stand Up?

A second astounding claim made by the aforementioned commenters is that critical scholarship pays attention to history while evangelical (or at least confessional) interpretation does not. Again, I’m dumbfounded. One has only to look at the work of people like Ray Van Neste or John Sailhamer or Stephen Dempster or Brevard Childs or N. T. Wright or Richard Hays or Stephen Fowl or George Knight or….and the list goes on. All of these scholars are well schooled in the issues surrounding the study of the historicity and historical development (or lack thereof) of the text, and yet come to different conclusions than those held by much of the academy for the last 100-200 years. What the commenters have a problem with is that confessional scholars don’t share their conclusions about historical issues, not that they don’t participate in historical studies.

Of course this brings us back to the first point, which is that modern biblical scholarship, no less than any other enterprise, is in many ways carried along and in some cases determined by its presuppositions. Approaching the biblical text as a purely human product devoid of unity or contemporary purpose is bred from the above Enlightenment commitments. Of course, seeing the Bible as a Christological unity is no less presuppositional. And this is not to say that presuppositions cannot be changed or modified; Bernard Lonergan among others has demonstrated how that happens.

One particular way that assumptions change is through an overwhelming confrontation by data, and I suppose this is what the commenters expect – for me and others to either ignore data or be confronted by it so overwhelmingly that we cannot help but approach the Bible differently. But the truth of the matter is twofold. First, there are many quality evangelical scholars who know intricately the data and the arguments for reading it a certain way, and yet interpret it differently. Take the authorship of the Pastorals – both Ray Van Neste and George Knight confront the supposed airtight case for pseudonymity and overturn it. Ironically, these commenters chide confessional scholars, evangelicals among them, for their holy huddle and refusing to have their assumptions questioned. But I wonder, how is this not the same on the other side?

On a historical level, there is also the irony of many commenters deriding other approaches to the text as “failed projects of modernity.” BIblical theology was explicitly mentioned a number of times in this regard. But what this fails to recognize is that biblical theology was originally a reaction against the growing realization that modern biblical studies was itself a failing project of modernity. I think the history of interpretation is a neglected field, and this is a fine example of where it gets us.

Finally, again on a historical level, the assumption that an ecclesial reading is not scholarly ignores both the history of the text and of its interpretation. The Bible is forever intertwined with the church, and to try to separate them is a fool’s errand. And to claim that the first 1750 years of biblical interpretation, not to mention interpretation prior to Jesus of Nazareth, is at its heart not scholarly and inherently faulty is to identify not as an enlightened progressive but as a quintessential example of chronological snobbery.

Poor Richard…

Of course now the question is, what about people like Richard Hays or Joel Green, who operate with explicitly confessional assumptions? Are they now out of SBL? Is it only the atheist, or the one who pretends to be one, that can be a member? I suppose they’re out, as are a host of others. I suppose that’s fine, if the members choose to vote that way. But I suspect once the full implications of this “non-sectarian objective utopia” are realized, people might back off a bit.


9 thoughts on “The Pure and Undefiled Religion of Critical Biblical Scholarship

  1. Matt, I’ve followed this conversation from the FB thread. I concede that you make some fair observations, but I think that this post misrepresents the conversation. Most of the contributors are neither suggesting that biblical studies are a positivistic discipline nor objecting to evangelical scholars contributing to the conversation. My own comment makes this clear: Hays, Green, Wright, Hurtado, and others have left a mark on NT scholarship, and you cite some examples as well. But, what bothered your interlocutors was that some evangelical scholarship doesn’t show evidence of engaging at all with the insights of critical scholarship. When a writer shows no interest in a three-hundred year-old tradition of criticism, and comes to sectarian conclusions by adopting a sectarian methodology, I think one can assume that the study is aimed at a sectarian audience and should be reviewed in a sectarian publication – of which there are many. Schreiner has done other fine work (commentaries, etc.) that engages with that conversation and does deserve review – though preferably by someone outside his own tradition. The reason for that: to determine whether a contribution is potentially edifying to someone who doesn’t share the writer’s presuppositions (recall my comment about a nonMarxist benefiting from Marxist analysis). I write all of this as a self-designated left-wing evangelical myself.

    • Hi Ryan,
      Thanks for reading and commenting. As I stated on the thread and in this post, I can understand the critique of choice of reviewer for the Schreiner book, but unfortunately I don’t see how I’ve misrepresented some of the commenters. Certainly not everyone was on the same page on the thread, but in the first version of this post I had lengthy quotations that demonstrated that at least some commenters thought that evangelicals shouldn’t participate in SBL, at least not in any way that includes their confessional commitments. In this post I am simply trying to point out that this is hypocritical to ask evangelicals to leave their confessional commitments at the door while assuming that the foundations of modern critical scholarship are unquestionable and unassailable. I may end up putting those quotes back up, but have them there anonymously, just so it is clear exactly what I’m arguing against.

  2. Hi Everyone.
    This sounds similar to a discussion I had with some Evangelical scholars that science is objective but theological interpretation is not. Science is simply presenting the evidence and theology is tainted by all kinds of presuppositions and hidden agendas. Although I think we are all better off to honestly examine our own bias and tendencies, I simply don’t see scientists and simply doing science. I think its all more complicated than that (and that is not to say scientists are not trying to present the evidence the best they can). In the end, there is no pure, undefiled religion, higher critical scholarship, or science. The only pure one I know of is Jesus.

    • Matt — You might be interested in Thomas Lessl’s essay “The Priestly Voice” in the Quarterly Journal of Speech in 1989 which addresses the rhetoric of science. One of my early PhD students, Curtis Perry Otto also wrote an excellent dissertation on the rhetoric of science in which he proposes a new rubric for understanding in what ways and at which stages of production science is rhetorical. If you are interested you can find it under ‘Rhetoric, Science, and Global Climate Change’ — Barnes and Noble carries it. But one of my favorite books on the philosophy of science and its presuppositions is A.F. Chalmer’s little book ‘What is this Thing Called Science?’

  3. Matt,

    Even though I had little idea what SBL and RBL referred to (had to google both), I found this post incredibly interesting and helpful. It does seem that conservative biblical scholars are often unfarily marginalized by the larger community. As an evangelical who has read some popular level, periphery engagement with critical biblical scholarship, I have been wanting to understand these issues in greater depth. Is there a particular resource that you would recommend that details in full the type of things you brought up in this post, detailing the merits of the conservative evangelical approach and thoroughly critiquing the critical biblical approach?

  4. Pingback: Theological Moorings for Canonical Readings | Biblical Reasoning

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