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The Difference between Critical and Sceptical Thinking

The Difference between Critical and Sceptical Thinking August 31, 2020

I’ve been re-reading J.B. Lightfoot’s most polemical, but also in some ways his most interesting book, ‘Essays on Supernatural Religion’. It was compiled from his various responses to the anonymous broadside entitled ‘Supernatural Religion’ which attacked B.F. Westcott (Lightfoot’s colleague and friend at Cambridge) and particularly Westcott’s John commentary, advocating instead for a miracle free Christianity focusing on Christ’s ethical teachings. The compilation was released at the very end of Lightfoot’s life in 1889. I draw attention here to a quote from near the end of the Introduction of the book, which must clearly have been one of the last things Lightfoot ever penned:

“It seems to be assumed that, because the sceptical spirit has its proper function in scientific inquiry (though even here its excesses will often impede progress), therefore its exercise is equally useful and equally free from danger in the domain of [historical, including Biblical] criticism. A moment’s reflection however will show that the cases are wholly different. In whatever relates to morals and history– in short to human life in all its developments– where mathematical or scientific demonstration is impossible, and where consequently everything depends on the even balance of the judicial faculties, scepticism must be at least as fatal to the truth as credulity”. (Essays on Supernatural Religion, p, 26, emphasis added). In other words, how did ‘trust but verify’ degenerate into ‘distrust and vilify’?? Richard Bauckham has quite rightly lamented of late that “Such skepticism has become endemic in Gospel studies as a result of form criticism. Many NT scholars seem to suppose that the more skeptical of the sources they are, the more rigorously historical is their method. But this is not how historians usually work. In good historical work it is no more an epistemic virtue to be skeptical than it is to be credulous. In everyday life, we do not systematically mistrust everything anyone tells us. When someone is in a position to know what they tell us does so, we normally believe them. But we keep our critical faculties alert and raise questions if there is specific reason to doubt.” (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses 2nd edition, last chapter location 14369 on Kindle). Just so!

It is to this last sentence I draw especial attention. After spending some 40 years, a full Biblical generation, in the guild of Biblical scholars, one of the constant traits I have found in the guild is the inability to distinguish between mere skepticism, however eruditely presented, and critical thinking. What is especially odd about this phenomena is that the courtesy one regularly extends to one’s peers, hearing them out, and reserving judgment and trying to keep an open mind, is not extended to the writers of the NT and their sources.

Instead we hear remarks about how they, bless their hearts, were ‘people of their own time and couldn’t be expected to have correct modern notions about miracles or demons or divine activity in the human sphere’, or the like. This is often said without realizing that this presupposes that we now ‘know better’ than the original authors about such things, and we come from a posture and place of such intellectual superiority, that we can only pity the authors of the NT for their credulity and lack of critical thinking.

This whole condescending approach seems to be partly grounded in what I call ‘justification by doubt’. The way you establish your modern credentials as a good critical thinking scholar is by pouring scorn on the thinkers of earlier ages, being skeptical about things you have a difficulty in believing. But in fact critical thinking is one thing, and a presupposition or attitude of skepticism is another. I would suggest that we extend the same courtesy to our ancient writers as to our current peers— hearing them out, construing what they say in the most open and positive way one can, and then draw conclusions, using critical thinking. We don’t immediately assume they are wrong or right, we hear them out, and give them the same benefit of the doubt we do colleagues, even if in the end we disagree with their claims and assertions.

Especially in the so-called third quest for the historical Jesus have we had an absence of this kind of approach to the data again and again, but it has also surfaced in the way that textual criticism has been done, not to mention the method of evaluation of the ante-Nicene Church Fathers and their claims. And oddest of all— some of the most skeptical of the scholars are the very ones who protest most strongly that they are open minded folk!

This reminds me of something my old mentor, C.K. Barrett once said trying to explain the difference between Biblical scholarship in America and in the U.K. Kingsley said, and I’m paraphrasing from memory here: ‘Here in the U.K. we look over our shoulder and what see is Deutschland and its considerable critical scholarship. And we respond to that with what we take to be a more balanced approach. But in America, when many scholars look over their shoulders they see Christian fundamentalism, and they spend their careers in over-reaction to that.’ AMEN to that. It’s sad but true. I remember the repeated tales of a professor at a church related divinity school who began a class on the historical Jesus with students training for the ministry with the pronouncement ‘I don’t believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, now let’s critically evaluate the Gospel data.’!! I’m afraid Prof. Barrett was all too accurate in the way he saw many of our ranks. It is sad when someone spends their career establishing what they are against, and not as much on what they are for. One final quote from Lightfoot is worth repeating:

“We Christians are constantly told that we must expect to have our records tested by the same standards which are applied to other writings. This is exactly what we desire, and what we do not get. It is not easy to imagine the havoc that would ensure, if the critical principles of the Tubingen school and their admirers were let loose on the classical literature of Greece and Rome.” (Essays, p. 82).

Enough said.


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