another article on inerrantist biblical scholars and “protective strategies”

another article on inerrantist biblical scholars and “protective strategies” March 26, 2015

BII recently posted, with some commentary, an article published by Stephen L. Young on inerrantist biblical scholars employing “protective strategies” and “privileging insider claims” in their publications.

In that article, Young, “examines how Evangelical Christian inerrantist scholars theorize their biblical scholarship and its relation to the broader academy, highlighting (1) their self-representation as true academics, and (2) the ways they modulate historical methods to prefer interpretive options that keep the Bible inerrant.”

Young just published a second article illustrating this thesis by focusing on the complex issue of Israelite literacy: “Maximizing Literacy as a Protective Strategy: Redescribing Inerrantist Scholarship on Israelite Literacy.”

The article appears in Biblical Interpretation 23 (2015): 145-73 and the full article can be accessed here.

I won’t discuss the article here, though I reproduce below a few portions from the first few pages of the article that should give interested readers a sense of Young’s point.

The abstract (my emphasis):

Evangelical Christian inerrantist scholars consistently maximize the extent of literary reading and writing abilities in ancient Israel, especially beyond scribes, priests, and other elites or professionals. How they frame the issues, handle the data, represent their work as academic historical research, and engage in certain recurring patterns of argumentation invites analysis. This article analyzes the publications of inerrantist scholars on Israelite literacy, in particular Alan Millard and Richard Hess, as examples of inerrantist discourse and argues that their scholarship on Israelite literacy is characterized by protective strategies that privilege biblical claims. The article thus aims to explore part of the historiography of scholarship on Israelite literacy, to provide an accurate account of what precisely inerrantist scholars are doing in their publications on the topic, and to reframe inerrantist scholarship on Israelite literacy as data for the study of religion. 

Young includes in his scope 6 articles and essays penned by Millard and 12 books, essays, articles, and book reviews written by Hess.

Young notes the tendency among inerrantist biblical scholars to collapse the distinction between description and analysis of a text’s claims.

Certain religious studies scholars have developed the classification of “protective strategies” or “protectionism” to designate the practice of collapsing the distinction between describing a religious actor’s (or text’s) claims and analyzing or explaining those claims in ways that do not privilege them by reinscribing them in the analysis. Protective collapsing of the distinction between describing the meaning and claims of a text and analyzing or explaining such claims is a hallmark of apologetic approaches that block analysis of a text in terms of models or options that may not uphold that text’s own claims about itself. By privileging their understandings of the Bible’s claims about its divine nature, inerrancy, and essential unity, inerrantists theorize the necessity of approaching the Bible in ways that do not permit analysis that could cut across the Bible’s own claims. They invalidate such non-privileging approaches with, among other things, the rhetoric of failing to “respect” the Bible or refusing to approach the Bible “on its own terms.” Inerrantists thus collapse the difference between describing a biblical writing’s meaning or claims and analyzing that writing’s claims. (pp. 146-47, my emphasis)

Young focuses on Millard and Hess, however, precisely because they do not frame their own work in this way.

As my previous article illustrates, many inerrantists explicitly orient their scholarship at the outset by stating their commitment to inerrancy. They, accordingly, often contrast their supernatural presuppositions with the illegitimate anti-supernatural presuppositions of non-inerrantist scholars and clarify that their historical methodologies presume the inerrancy of the Bible. But the two inerrantist scholars on whom I focus in the following pages, Alan Millard and Richard Hess, do not frame their work on Israelite literacy in this way. Their publications thus afford an opportunity to extend my redescription of inerrantist scholarship by examining a kind of inerrantist discourse not cov- ered in my previous article. As evidenced by Millard and Hess, some inerrantist scholars do not present their work as distinctively inerrantist scholarship that presumes the inerrancy of the Bible and modifies historical methods to prefer analyses of the Bible that uphold inerrancy. They simply represent their arguments as standing on the strength of their mastery of relevant ancient data.

To focus specifically on Millard and Hess and their scholarship on Israelite lit-eracy, their work consistently maximizes the extent of literary reading and writing abilities in ancient Israel. Furthermore, they pursue their research on Israelite literacy ostensibly as historians and situate their projects within the arena of critical historical inquiry. I will demonstrate, however, that analysis of their work invites hypothesizing about the operation of factors and considerations beyond those of academic historical study.

I argue that these factors and considerations relate to the methodological constraints on biblical scholarship that are characteristic of the inerrantist fields that Hess and Millard inhabit. To the extent that my suggestion is accurate, the variance of their positions and arguments from those of other critical-historical scholars does not simply reflect expected kinds of disagreement among academics addressing complex issues through standard investigative methods. Instead, Millard and Hess protectively privilege the claims of biblical texts and consistently orient their scholarship around arguing for historical conditions that permit privileging biblical claims. I will argue in particular that their representations of widespread Israelite literacy serve to uphold what they take to be biblical depictions of literary literacy as a “normal,” or normative, Israelite ability. Sometimes they make this point relatively explicitly. Other times this privileging commitment remains unstated but is still a plausible explanation for the specific shape of their high assessments of Israelite literacy. Accordingly, in my analysis I will focus in particular upon details of Hess’ and Millard’s publications that signal various kinds of protective commitments to the Bible. (pp. 147-48, my emphasis)

Young adds a helpful clarification on p. 149, that his analysis of the work of Millard and Hess is in no way an accusation of “insincerity in their scholarship” but rather follows “Practice Theory [which] directs attention to, among other things, the material and symbolic interests bound up with practices, the associated social dynamics of recognition and attraction to them, and their associated fields and participants, but precisely without speculation about deep motives or suspicions about insincerity.”

The article is, like the previous one, heavily documented, and should certainly lead to some stimulating conversations.

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  • The futile and annoying ‘Inerrancy debate’ seems to be today’s internet ‘Soup du jour.’

    I think this …

    … a classic false dichotomy:
    a) It’s inerrant, or
    b) It’s LOTR (i.e. all fiction, or all unreliable if proven to be ‘errant’ anywhere):

    My opinion, for what it’s worth.

    1: ‘Inerrant’ is not a Biblical word, concept or category, so to lay it on Scripture is to force a modern category inappropriately on to the text. If you stand or Fall on inerrancy, and teach others to do the same, you are programming people to lose their faith as soon as some things don’t add up in a way that makes simple sense to the contemporary western mind.

    But the text is ancient eastern literature.

    2: ‘Inspired’ allows for a range of types of writings and dialogues to be entered into by God and Humanity. Not all the opinions will be correct, but will be a correct and honest record of the interactions – ‘Oh that you would dash their head against a stone … ‘ etc?

    3: Is ‘inerrant’ a relevant category for ‘inspired fiction’ of various types? Jesus told stories that didn’t actually take place, in order to convey Truths. Inerrancy is irrelevant for that type of artistic endeavour. If it was proved for certain that (e.g.) the book of Jonah was ‘untrue’, would it make it less credible in conveying profound Truths? Or Job? Or sections of Genesis? Or literature that we perhaps mistakenly correlate with modern history, such as Chronicles or Judges?

    The whole debate is itself a dangerous misconception, that attempts to define and defend ‘Faith’ in a way that doesn’t fit with the text.

    Rather than automatically asking the Binary question ‘Is it true?’ of every scriptural text, section or genre, a better question is ‘What Truth(s) does this convey?’

    That allows any historical record to be history on its own terms, which sometimes involves theological creativity within the narrative (e.g. the way the Prologue themes in 4G are woven into the account for theological emphasis) but it also allows other artistic genres to convey their message without being forced into a post enlightenment definition of accuracy.

    • Carter The Yancey

      I’d have to agree. The “spirit of the Law” is often overlooked when the literal accuracy of a passage is analyzed, resulting in the passage itself becoming utterly useless. If all you retain from a passage is the historical narrative, then you often have missed the purpose of the passage. Such methodologies result in people who are filled with their own meaningless ideals based on debatable “facts” instead of Truth-filled God seekers, inspired and changed by Scripture.
      The root of truth does not change, but it’s contextual teachings do. In other words, the core of a teaching is more important than the teaching itself, for the teaching itself can lose meaning through age. Those who have identified and irrevocably held to the surface-level teachings have been forgotten, or remembered as fools. Those who realize and understand the greater truth beneath a teaching have been revered throughout the ages.

      • I think losing touch with the historical narrative is a big part of the problem, actually. Preserving a certain body of abstractions is a theological endeavor, not a historical one.

      • I think that applying ‘inerrancy’ to a small passage, rather than treating ‘The Bible’ as a single uniform one dimensional whole, throws the issue into focus.
        e.g. The parable of The Good Samaritan:
        Is this ‘inerrant’?
        What does it mean for a piece of inspired fiction to be inerrant?
        How would you know if it was ‘errant’?
        Surely, by definition, it’s accuracy is not factual, but in its ability to communicate correct theological messages, and it could have been written in a different way, given a different context or characters, and conveyed the same truths.
        Once a discussion acknowledges that these nuances exist in that type of content, you have proved that genre is important, and identifying the genre is key to defining the type of reliability any given text has.
        This then leads to more careful consideration of some OT sections which are mistakenly read by some as if they are exactly the same as modern history.

        All of which emphasizes that the real inspiration of all scripture is in its ability to convey Truths, rather than to fit into our C21st concepts of factual journalistic historical literature.

        (Mind you, some modern journalistic literature is arguably very factually tenuous … )

        • Daniel Fisher

          I think your point here is insightful, and it gets to the crux of the concern… Jesus’s use of parables is not problematic, as it is clear to the most casual reader the point therein, that it is a story, and that there is no claim of its historical accuracy, hence it couldn’t technically be erroneous or not in that manner.

          The problem begins where a [erroneous] claim to actual historicity is made… If, for instance [hypothetically] we knew for certain that Abraham did not actually exist as a historical person… Then Jesus’ belief and teachings about Abraham don’t simply make his listener doubt what he says about Abraham, but undermine any confidence we might have about anything else he says about something historical.

          Granted, it isn’t as simple as “either Inerrant or LOTR”, but there is a prima facie logical case to be made for a genuine dichotomy of “either inerrant or untrustworthy/unreliable”.
          I’d say the same for books claiming authoritative knowledge about any topic… Textbooks, technical manuals, etc…. Errors in such documents [rightly] undermine the reader’s confidence in either the care, methods, knowledge, or authority of the author. Such books are either inerrant, or they cast doubt on the knowledge, expertise, or methods of the supposed authority behind them, and increase one’s skepticism toward all the other claims in whatever book.

          (Realizing, of course, that the Bible is most certainly not simply a textbook or technical manual… I mean to limit the analogy only to those places where the Bible does make similarly objective truth claims.)

          • Andrew Dowling

            “Then Jesus’ belief and teachings about Abraham don’t simply make his listener doubt what he says about Abraham, but undermine any confidence we might have about anything else he says about something historical.”

            I’m struggling to think of anything Jesus is quoted to say in the Gospels whose larger importance rests on its historical accuracy. For example, Jesus quotes Genesis to support his assertion on divorce, but whether Adam or Even ever existed really makes zero difference whatsoever.

          • Mike H

            Approaches that literalize and/or make historical that which isn’t, that harmonize away multivocality and even the smallest of discrepancies, and that justify genocide etc. all in the name of protecting a particular theory of inspiration affect the credibility of the gospel, and in a far more soul crushing way IMO.

    • Stephen W

      I reject your assertion that LOTR is fiction.


      • Gary

        What to say about these people with a low view of the LOTR…

        • Stuart Blessman

          You mean the ones who refuse to watch the movies because they aren’t “pure”?

      • Stuart Blessman

        Well it’s a good argument against the verbal plenary inspiration of LOTR, because clearly Tolkien needed an editor.

        Thank God for modern day scholars like Jackson who are able to tell us simple folk exactly what Tolkien was really saying!

    • Bev Mitchell

      Well said Jez.

      Those of us who believe that divine inspiration is a real possibility are not logically required to believe that the people receiving such inspiration are perfect receptors of that inspiration – or, for that matter, perfect in any particular way. Even very conservative Christians would agree with the above statement when referring to any living person, or the reformers, or the patristics (for example).

      But when it comes to those who wrote, edited, compiled and canonized any part of Scripture, many today seem to enter another reality. In this other reality, folks seem to need perfect inspiration reception and transmission abilities on the part of those involved in the production of the Bible. For them, it seems, the nature/mechanism of the inspiration and/or the reception quality of those particular persons must have been of another kind.

  • Adam Omelianchuk

    “By privileging their understandings of the Bible’s claims about its divine nature, inerrancy, and essential unity, inerrantists theorize the necessity of approaching the Bible in ways that do not permit analysis that could cut across the Bible’s own claims.”

    Don’t we already know this? This seems, to me, entirely trivial, and I doubt Millard and Hess would disagree. They, together with their readership, might even be happy about it!.

  • Just Sayin’

    I wonder would Larry Hurtado be a NT equivalent of Millard & Hess as portrayed in this article?

    • Daniel Merriman

      I am not aware that Hurtado has ever described himself as an inerrantist. In the one major work of his I have read, Lord, Jesus Christ, he makes extensive use of Q and respectfully engages the Gospel of Thomas, both of which would raise the hackels of any inerrantist of my acquaintance. I have not read anything by Millard and Hess, but based on Pete’s excerpts of the Young aricle, I would not have thought of Larry Hurtado as falling in with them. I am a lawyer (retired), not a historian, but I found the work I cited to be transparent and devoid of confessional concerns. (I recall discussing the book with someone who thought it undermined Trinitarian doctrine !) I am generally on the alert for what we call “law office history” in my trade and I found none of it in the book I mentioned. I am not, by the way, an inerrantist, not even a recovering one.

      • Danny Yencich

        Although Hurtdao does make critical arguments about literacy and reading culture in early Christianity, in my reading of him (which has been fairly extensive on this subject), he never couches his argument in any sort of theological claims. Hurtado is just doing historical-critical work, and leveraging arguments against what he perceives to be overstatements about orality, literacy, and performance in early Christianity. “Just sayin’.”

        • Daniel Merriman

          I would defer to you in so far as Hurtado’ s more recent work on early Christian texts and artifacts is concerned. I read his blog every few months and haven’t really read very much in the area in a long time. I can’t recall him taking a position on Israelite literacy. Maybe he has.

          I do find it interesting that Hurtado’s review of Bart Ehrman’s latest book appeared in that house journal of knuckle dragging inerrantist fundamentalism, Christian Century.

  • newenglandsun

    I’m a bit confused as to why the Evangelical inerrantist scholars are being singled out here. There was much controversy toward Biblical theology as higher criticism emerged that the Catholic Church had issues with. So much so that when Pope Pius XII approved of it, he cautioned Catholic scholars to pay attention to “the traditional teaching regarding the inerrancy of Sacred Scripture” (Divino Afflante Spiritu, 46).

    But lest I single out the Catholic Church here, I should also bring up my own church’s (ACA) understandings as we ourselves have dogmas which certain modernist readings of scriptures undermine. Not to mention the Eastern Orthodox. Certainly, there is a bit of protectionism going on isn’t there? I’m wondering, are the Evangelicals being singled out though because they’ve been more involved though in Biblical scholarship than any one from my own church or the Catholic Church or the Eastern Orthodox Church/Churches?

    I wonder if someone were to go through that new Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture or even some of Scot Hahn’s works that one might notice some protectionism going on in there.

    • Andrew Dowling

      There’s a long history of higher criticism from within the RCC beginning in the 20th century, and its scholars, supported by the Church, have never had to sign any statements affirming inerrancy or certain biblical interpretations. Since the Bible is approached in a significantly different way in the Catholic tradition than in conservative evangelicalism, this is not surprising

      • newenglandsun

        There is also a long history of combating higher criticism within the Catholic Church. And any Catholic themselves has to agree fully with Catholic doctrine. I recall Luke Timothy Johnson was laicized although that might have possibly been because he married. I also note Crossan has been laicized as well.

        • Andrew Dowling

          Crossan left the priesthood on his own accord well before he became a biblical scholar. Johnson’s scholarly work has never been combated by the Catholic Church (heck, Johnson’s conclusions are actually more conservative than those of Brown or Perkins, Catholics whose HC work has seen zero pushback)

          Yes, the Church in the 19th and early 20th centuries fought against HC, but by Vatican II came to terms with it, and now the Church as a whole does not have the issues with biblical scholarship that conservative evangelicalism has.

          Also, Cardinal Bea is not formulating Catholic doctrine; he’s not a Pope. It’s his opinion and his interpretation. The Catholic Church is an extremely big tent and various Cardinals and Bishops will have divergent views on a wide number of issues. Of course a conservative convert like Hahn will cite conservative sources since he seeks the rigidity he moved on from (albeit in a different form).

          • newenglandsun

            I gave you Pope Pius XII’s declarations and Cardinal Bea references numerous Papal declarations in his encyclical. Luke Timothy Johnson’s positions on women’s ordination and homosexuality would strongly be opposed by the Catholic Church.

            Any way, I think the point of this article is that the inerrantist scholars are “privileging their understandings of the Bible’s claims”. In much the same way, Catholics also already have their developed tradition which they tend to privilege in their academia.

            You need to pay more attention to the history of higher criticism within the Catholic Church. Pope Pius XII was the Pope who approved of it. In his encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu which I have referenced already and will not reference again if you remain in ignorance, the Pope states that biblical scholars are to pay attention to “the traditional teaching regarding the *inerrancy* of Sacred Scripture” (46).

            I would also point you toward some of Fr. Raymond E. Brown’s works that have become quite controversial amongst Catholics specifically his Critical Meaning of the Bible book. Short, but goes through MANY of the problems Catholic scholarship has faced when coming to the Biblical texts. Interestingly enough, the best school for Biblical studies in the Catholic Church is the Pontifical Biblical Institute which is NOT one of the best schools for Biblical scholarship. What you’ll find from Brown’s Critical Meaning of the Bible is that most of the Catholic Church’s adoption of higher criticism in the first place was because they saw an opportunity to prove their doctrines from it.

            One of my Biblical Hebrew professors also went to the Catholic University of Louvain to obtain her Ph.D. and had a professor trying to prove that the Gospels were originally written in Aramaic.

            Hahn is no more rigid than your average Catholic. He just goes back to the encyclicals and the official positions of the Catholic Church before he makes statements on the Bible. (You apparently need a better grasp on Catholic doctrine. I apparently hang out with a much more orthodox Catholic crowd than you do.) I gave my dad (who is far more liberal than I) a book by Hahn a couple Christmases ago and he started using it in discussions with former fundamentalist friends of his.

            Again, read up on the entire history of the Catholic issues with historical criticism and you will find that there are just as many problems within Catholicism when it comes to higher criticism as there are in Evangelicalism if not more. I even have troubles with higher criticism and I’m neither Catholic nor Evangelical though my approach to scripture is more in line with Catholicism than Evangelicalism.

          • newenglandsun

            In case that wasn’t clear that was my own professor who had a professor at the Catholic University of Louvain who was trying to prove the Gospels were originally written in Aramaic.

      • newenglandsun

        This, BTW, is an article by Augustin Cardinal Bea clarifying the question of Biblical inerrancy in the Catholic Church.

  • Yes, but at least the snippets you included seem to miss a larger issue: it is not just that the gentlemen in question “privilege Biblical claims”; it is that they privilege a certain interpretation of a certain understanding of Biblical claims. It doesn’t affect Young’s argument at all, but it is a natural function of “confessionalism”. If you are already committed to a conclusion, it is difficult to be effective in the contemporary arena of ideas.

    • hoosier_bob

      Molly Worthen makes this point in her book: Inerrancy was never primarily concerned with protecting the inerrancy of the text itself, but with protecting certain fundamentalist interpretations of the text as inerrant.

  • Ross

    Unfortunately I don’t quite get the specialist terms, e.g. “privileging” in this context. However I do come to most things with an “open (leaking?) mind, such as the bible, with the idea that it could be written by God without error or contradiction, or it may not. On reading it the evidence is quite conclusive. It is not without error or contradiction, particularly in the bare basic meaning of those terms as we currently use them. Okay, we can get into detailed semantic arguments over what we mean by the terms “error”, “contradiction” or “or”, but ultimately it’s fairly obvious that factually, the bible is several sandwiches short of a picnic. Inerrantist “scholars” are obviously several sandwiches, five chicken legs, a Cesar Salad and a bottle of Chablis short of a picnic (not to forget the lack of a wicker basket and tartan rug!).

    Why do we get so het up by the fact that there are a lot of mislead people out there? Why do I get so het up by it?

    In my case it’s because a lot of people have tried to pressure me using untruths. These untruths are not held malignly but often sincerely.

    I think we need to sue God for letting such a bunch of idiots run about proclaiming they know what he’s up to.

  • hoosier_bob

    This thread may well be dead, but….

    I’ve never read anything published in JETS until yesterday. Based on its title, I figured that it was an academic journal that published academic pieces concerning evangelicalism and related theological issues.

    Nope! I read an article by a “scholar” named Denny Burk that’s been accepted for publication in the coming issue. Mind you, I said “accepted for publication” not just “submitted for publication.” So, this article has already satisfied the journal’s internal editor(s) and some number of peer reviewers. But the article was littered with factual misstatements, many of which were proffered without citation. Further, the article contained a number of flaws in logical reasoning, many of which were also included either without citation or with very brief citations that did little to lend support to the relevant averment.

    I have a PhD and a JD. While in law school, I was an editor for the law review of a top-20 law school. If we had published an article similar to Burk’s, we would have required him to include 200-300 citations, which included significant treatment of relevant counterarguments. The same standards prevailed in my PhD program, although journal articles in my field were generally only 5-6 pages long.

    More than anything else, I fear that this proves the point regarding privileging and the apparent sham of the “evangelical academy.” The whole piece was nothing short of a poorly reasoned defense of the way in which evangelicals have engaged with the issue of homosexuality. It offered no creative hypotheses and no interesting conclusions. It was simply a rear-guard advocacy piece formatted to look like an academic publication. In many ways, the article was a rather extreme embodiment of all of the criticisms that evangelicals level against the secular academy.

    One of the reasons that I left evangelicalism is because I’d simply come to see it as a racket (yes, in the RICO sense). But my experience was largely at the local church. I figured that evangelical academia was different, as schools needed to permit professors to have academic freedom as a condition of maintaining accreditation. I guess I was wrong. In reading Burk’s article, it became clear to me that JETS isn’t an academic journal at all. It’s like World Magazine with different formatting. It’s a place where evangelical “scholars” can publish junk studies that do nothing more than defend the racket, and simultaneously maintain the outward appearance of engaging in scholarship.

    It would be interesting to see somebody publish a book comparing American neo-evangelicalism (and its associated institutions) to the Mafia. After 15 years in evangelicalism, I’ve come to see it as little more than a crime syndicate that operates under the Constitution’s religious-exercise protections. When I look back at my years in the PCA, I just can’t help but feel that I’ve been dirtied and emotionally molested by the whole experience.

    • peteenns

      JETS has largely become more of an apologetics journal in my opinion. The author of the article is a conservative Southern Baptist and defender of inerrancy, which I’m sure explains your reaction.

      • hoosier_bob

        I get that. Even so, I have difficulty coming to terms with sloppiness. Sure, in the secular academy, liberal sloppiness is tolerated a bit more than conservative sloppiness. Still, not much sloppiness is tolerated in either direction. If neo-evangelicalism really is “the truth,” then is it unreasonable to expect its proponents to present rigorously argued pieces in defense of its positions? The inability (and unwillingness) to proffer such robust defenses makes me think that evangelicals have come to accept that truth matters a lot less than truthiness. In that sense, neo-evangelicalism has simply come to embody the very post-modernism that it decries.

  • peteenns

    Folks, Rick Hess contacted me to provide a link to his response to Young’s article, which appeared in the Denver Journal. For some reason, he was unsuccessful in posting it himself, and I am happy to do so on his behalf.