To Foster Critical Biblical Scholarship

Alan Lenzi has an interesting post, inspired by an SBL review that denigrated mainstream critical scholarship, which concludes with the suggestion that SBL ought to change its motto from “To foster Biblical scholarship” to “To foster critical Biblical scholarship.” While I appreciate the spirit of his post, the notion of “uncritical scholarship” seems to me to be an oxymoron (although that does not mean there are no examples of it). But more than that, it seems to me that the biggest hurdle in the way of promoting scholarship is precisely the fact that some denigrate it in the name of religion, and many people who need to encounter scholarship never do precisely because of the attitude of the leaders of their religious tradition.

In a sense, I suppose this issue is comparable to the debates about evolution and religion that are going on among biologists about “accomodationism,” with some wanting to emphasize that there is no necessary incompatibility between science and faith, and others wanting complete separation.

My own concern is that thinking critically is extremely challenging, and something that even the best of scholars sometimes fail to do. Is it not better to have critical scholarship interacting and connected with those whose scholarship is done in the framework of a religious tradition, rather than encouraging those for whom faith is important to isolate themselves from mainstream scholarship, as some are anyway inclined to do? Would the end result not be that we did harm to critical Biblical scholarship, precisely because we drove away those who would, over the course of wrestling with the topics and methods in the field, eventually have embraced a critical approach?

What do other readers, and particularly those in some way connected with academic Biblical study, think about this topic?

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  • I work with this issue at the other end–the popular level–and I hope to see more of a connection between critical scholarship and religiously inspired study.From my point of view that means that more academically trained pastors and church leaders need to come out of their shell and talk about critical issues with their congregations.At the same time the academic engagement is a necessary backdrop. If one separates "religious scholars" and "critical scholars" completely, then the people in the pew are going to go with the former, to their loss.

  • Anonymous

    There are two disjunctures of concern.One is that addressed by McGrath here, the gap between those in academia who are free to go where their interpretation of the evidence leads them, and those who are constrained by dogmatic beliefs they can’t–often because of requirements imposed by those who hired them–contradict. But a second is that between the pulpit and the pew. Willy-nilly, even students who are supposed to hew to a party line often pick up the rudiments of what criticism has come up with since the time of Spinoza–that the Bible consists of five dozen different books written by men of varying beliefs under varying circumstances, that Moses didn’t author the Pentateuch, that passages where Yahweh is referred to may differ in provenance from those where Elohim is referred to, that Matthew and Luke may have had Mark at hand. These are virtual commonplaces of academic discourse, I dare to hope even in the most dogma-ridden of Bible schools. Hence from the lectern those in the pulpit have most of them acquired the rudiments of the critical thought about the Bible. The question whether many bridges have been built across the gap between pulpit and pew, whether even the more informed and studious congregants who show up at weeknight Bible study sessions are learning from their pastor the rudiments he picked up at seminary, or instead are fed uncritical pap that fits with conventional prejudice. (i put this forward as if I knew what I was talking about. But I am only guessing both at what goes on in Bible seminaries and in evangelical churches.)

  • The dream of a free and open discourse between critical and faith-based "scholarship" may wind up dashed against the rocks of real world. We may well be able to draw those near the middle ground into fruitful conversation, those on the the far right end of the spectrum (the other side has its own issues) have proven again and again that they will use the veil of reasonableness as a wedge to accomplish their ultimate goal of "Bible only" science education. I see no reason to believe that these efforts will abate in the forseeable future. I am far too jaded to think that getting everyone to "respect" each other's views will lead to a Kum Ba Ya moment.The thing that bothers me most is the suspicion that those in the pews prefer that their ministers preach as if Moses wrote the Pentateuch and John was an eyewitness to the empty tomb – even if the preacher knows better.

  • We don't need to drive away religiously inclined scholars. I wouldn't want that. I only advocate that we as scholars base our ideas on evidence and plausibility like other disciplines, not on faith-based claims of what the Bible MUST be.

  • Two thoughts: 1) I don't think academic disciplines should "accommodate" sub-par scholarship (of whatever sort) in the name of cooperation (I don't assume that all faith-directed research is sub-par, but I happen to know that much of it is), and 2) I don't think the faith/concerns of Christians and Jews should set the agenda for all biblical scholarship.

  • I don't think mainstream critical scholarship suffers from challenges to it from denigrators, whether they be mythicists or maximalists. If the challenge is at all well done (of course it is sometimes poorly done), it serves a very good cause.I've tried to interact with Alan Lenzi's concerns at some length here:

  • I have never had any problem with combining faith-based study and critical scholarship. I became aware during my training that there was a huge gulf between what I was learning at university and what our congregations were getting (or not getting) from the pulpit. I saw myself as a bridge-person between the two, and that has been one of the markers for my preaching over the last 30 years. It doesn't have to be heavy, sometimes it can be as simple as giving a two or three sentence introduction to a Bible reading, to set it in context. There have been a handful of people who have queried "So you don't think Paul wrote that letter?" or words to that effect, but the vast majority of people have been thrilled to have things explained clearly for them.Perhaps I've been fortunate in having especially intelligent and perceptive congregations. (Listen – I can hear them all laughing themselves silly at the very thought…) Or perhaps if we treat people as if they are intelligent and thoughtful, they find they are, and grow a little as people.