Scholar or Apologist? Why Not Both?

Scholar or Apologist? Why Not Both? February 16, 2015

Although this isn’t a case of “two great tastes that taste great together,” I’ve suggested before that “apologist” and “scholar” are not an absolute dichotomy, but a spectrum.

I think that point is relevant to the discussion that has exploded in the blogosphere, with Nijay Gupta, Mike Bird, Anthony Le Donne, Jonathan Bernier, Very Rarely Stable, and Gavin Rumney (twice), responding or reacting to a letter to the editor by Paul Holloway, in which he calls Wright a “book-a-year apologist” rather than a scholar.  A Ratzie was awarded for the discussion.

WrightThe truth is that Wright most certainly is an apologist. He does a little hand-waving and declares resurrections historical allegedly on the basis of historical considerations, and simply decides to accept one of the Pastoral Epistles as authentic with the only justification being that sometimes it is good to revisit an issue that has been considered settled.

But the truth is also that Wright is most certainly a scholar. He has offered detailed exegetical treatments of passages in Paul’s letters which have offered genuine insight into their meaning.

And so one can go back and forth on this without making any progress whatsoever, because both sides are right. And so the questions that actually need to be addressed are much harder. Does Wright’s apologetics undermine his scholarship? Do his ideological stances mean that he does not deserve an honorary degree?

I don’t think that Wright’s work is so easily dismissed. He has an obvious adherence to a historic form of Christianity. If someone rejects that particular tradition, it doesn’t make them ideology-free and unbiased. It may well simply mean that their ideology is different.

On the other hand, I don’t think that most secular universities would want to give a degree to someone whose stance is opposed to the kind of inclusiveness that they try to embody.

Sewanee, however, is not a secular school. It is an Episcopal university, and so for it to honor someone who has made an impact in that tradition is unsurprising.

One of the great things about the Episcopal tradition is that it can accommodate precisely these sorts of differences. It has room for both Wright and Holloway.

And so all I can hope for in this is discussion that may get us away from polarizing rhetoric which pretends that the only scholars are those who are free from all biases and ideologies. None of us are, and adopting that sort of stance simply means we are blind to our own situatedness. What makes scholarship work is not that participants are unbiased, but that for every Wright, there is a Holloway, and no claim which is driven solely or primarily by ideology is likely to go unidentified and unchallenged.


"I would be interested to know what there is in Nag Hammadi that would lend ..."

Response to Raphael Lataster
"And there are many references to “cosmic sperm bank” in Nag Hammadi. I won’t waste ..."

Response to Raphael Lataster
"If you use the Nag Hammadi documents as a guide, archon clearly has a negative ..."

Response to Raphael Lataster
"I also loved Archon, and you can play it for free in your web browser: ..."

Response to Raphael Lataster

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I can accept that someone like Wright can engage in both scholarship and apologetics. But if professional academics would like to be taken seriously, they should be sure that the apologetics can be separated from the scholarship. Scholarship deserves peer review; but apologetics should be rejected by peer review. Of course bias finds its way into all scholarship; but scholars at least strive for objectivity in their work. Bias is not the goal. But with apologetics, bias is built-in. The very purpose of apologetics is to prove a bias.

    Why not both? For the same reason that Dr. Mehmet Oz is taken to task for promoting weight-loss miracle “drugs”. Dr. Oz may “believe” in his products, but when he markets them as an M.D, he is disguising homeopathy as legitimate medicine.

    • Sure. And when I glance at the bibliography of Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, I see books, book chapters, and articles in theological journals. Wrights books are published by publishers with religious affiliations. And so, from my perspective as a scholar in this field, it seems clear to me where Wright situates himself.

      • Paul E.

        I am always more concerned with how apologist works are perceived by the public, and that’s where a concern like Beau Quilter’s comes in, I think. I don’t know if that is a relevant concern to Wright particularly, or if that is a problem Holloway has with him, but while I can agree that someone can be both a scholar and an apologist at different times and in different contexts, I would hope for the consuming public’s sake that in works designed for a wide public audience the lines between those roles are clearly delineated.

      • Are you saying that Wright clearly separates his scholarship from his apologetics?

        (For similar reasons, I question whether theology belongs in the academy)

        • I think that where things are published indicates that he is offering theological scholarship, and not something that would fit in a purely secular setting.

          • This is a distinction that apologists do not make when sharing such apologetics with laypersons. In fact, more often than not, apologists market such apologetics as scholarship.

          • Jim

            That’s sort of why few months back I had asked Prof McGrath for a link to current tier ranking status of NT & HJ studies journals. A higher tier rank obviously implies the likelihood of a higher quality article, however a higher rank also implies an additional factor, namely that of interest to broader readership.

            A publication in a lower tier journal may be a high quality work, however may be of interest to a smaller specialized audience. And apologetics, as prof McGrath indicates in his comment above, is one such area of specialized readership. So I’ve been using the tier list to look up the composition of a journal’s advisory board as a sort of buyers beware strategy. (sorry for any implied link to used car sales 🙂 )

          • My problem with apologetics is not that it’s “specialized” (there are plenty of specialized fields that belong in academic study). My problem with apologetics is that it is inherently biased. Apologetics is not a search for the truth. It is a search for confirmation of preconceived “truth”.

          • Jim

            I was just trying to be polite wrt apologetics by putting it in the “specialized” category. I suppose that since this past weekend was SNL’s 40th anniversary, I could have used the church lady’s line, “well isn’t that special” as a general comment on apologetic works. 🙂

        • Paul E.

          This is a bit off-topic, but did you read Le Donne’s comment? I would be interested in your perspective as an atheist on his opinion that theologies like Wright’s are a good, maybe necessary, balance/antidote to the use of different theologies in political ways with which he (and therefore others with whom he shares political opinions) disagrees.

          I find the comment troubling but, in my opinion, since the political use of theologies is out there, a balance of them is maybe necessary. This seems to me to be especially true where popular apologist works can be misread as objective scholarship and therefore as embodying an objective truth that can be used as an “objective” justification for political positions. In any case, I’m not comfortable with what Le Donne calls a “theological placement” for political concerns, but perhaps theology in the academy is one way of making sure there is at least a balance of positions.

          • I haven’t looked at Le Donne, yet – but I will now. Thanks for pointing it out.

          • OK, I’ve read Le Donne’s comments. I do find it interesting that Wright’s theological perspectives can be used as a counter to American Christian exceptionalism. To that extent, I suppose I might appreciate the outcome of Wright’s theology if not the content. However, my hope for the future, is that theology and apologetics, as fields with a clear, inherent bias, will no longer been seen as legitimate academic fields.

            Biblical studies will always have it’s place, of course, as will historical studies of theology. But we can study the history of astrology without becoming astrologers.

          • Paul E.

            Yeah, I tend to agree with you. I have a general discomfort for the idea that we need “good” theology to counter “bad” theology (understanding that various people will define those terms differently), and that there would be a desire to find a “theological placement” for political positions any more than there could be a desire to find an “astrological placement” for political positions. The dangers are patent, I think.

            By that, I don’t mean to denigrate Le Donne’s or anyone else’s personal beliefs. Rather, my focus is on the use of apologetics disguised as scholarship to give a false “objective” grounding to these types of positions.

          • Joshua Steiner


            May I ask why you think “theology” should be out of academia? To many millions, both popular and educated, theology is essential. I don’t see why the skeptical community should get a say in the existence of fields such as “theology”.

            Also, you claim that “theology” has an inherent bias, but isn’t this true in all fields? And what exactly is this bias? Perhaps if we had Hindu theology, or Muslim theology, the field wouldn’t be so “biased”? A bias isn’t a bad thing; perhaps it is in science, but “theology” is something entirely different. Theology has to do with meaning and interpretation. If anything, you seem to be begging the question against any possibility of “god-talk” at all, which certainly isn’t anymore objective than theology.

          • You’ve actually put your finger on the problem of bias in your own response:

            “Perhaps if we had Hindu theology, or Muslim theology, the field wouldn’t be so “biased”.

            But, of course, we do have Hindu and Muslim theology, just as we have the Christian theology more prominent in America. Theology is always biased by the precepts of the particular religion that practices it. In reality, theology (at least in part) consists of the precepts of the particular religion that practices it.

            You concede that bias is a bad thing in science, but seem not to realize that bias is to be avoided in virtually all academic disciplines.

          • Joshua Steiner

            I don’t believe it is possible to avoid bias in any discipline. We may recognize it and be honest with ourselves about it, but we can’t avoid it. That’s why it doesn’t do us any good to limit confessional scholars from being involved in certain academic disciplines. If atheists and skeptics dominated the field of NT scholarship, it’s not going to get rid of the problems we currently have. Simply limiting a group of people isn’t going to make a field any more or less biased.

            The very fact that we have to have this conversation about a field such as theology does suggest that no one can avoid bias; particularly in this field. That’s why I don’t view bias as a bad thing. Unidentified bias is a bad thing; of course. Dishonest intellectuals are also bad. Agendas are also bad. But there is a massive difference between having an agenda and having a bias. And knowing that difference will carry us a long way.

          • Andrew Dowling

            Josh, the problem with confessional scholars (typically meaning professors from evangelical scholars that have signed a statement affirming inerrancy and other statements about the veracity of the Bible) is that there are a huge swath of probable conclusions that they simply will NOT entertain . . period . . end of story. That in and of itself is against the very essence of academic study with integrity, which goes to where the evidence leads to and being honest about likelihoods and probabilities. This doesn’t mean biblical scholars have to be atheists . . .Raymond Brown was a confessing Catholic priest his whole life and he accepted the conclusions of mainstream higher criticism (including that the virgin birth was myth and the Pastorals weren’t written by Paul). And the likes of Crossan/Patterson also are Christians but don’t hold to literal orthodox belief.

          • A good comment, Andrew, except that I don’t see the problem as being with “confessional scholars”, especially in disciplines across academia. My problem is when the discipline itself (theology) is confessional.

          • Andrew Dowling

            I guess I’m conflating “theology” with “religious studies” . .don’t some of the Ivy Leagues still dole out “theology” degrees? But I know they’re not forced to recite a confession of any kind . . .

          • You’ve put your finger on an ongoing academic debate. Many institutions are separating departments of religion or religious studies from departments of theology or seminaries. In some cases the delineation is clear in their separate purposes and practices; in other cases the delineation is fuzzier.

            Of course, I consider religious studies a perfectly tenable academic discipline. Theology, on the other hand, with confessional presuppositions as the very basis for the discipline, I think will fade from existence in future universities.

          • GodisLove

            But biblical scholars aren’t experts on whether God exists or whether one should be an atheist or Christian. These are philosophical issues.

          • Is “GodisLove” a new handle for “Matt Brown”?

            (expertise on the existence of God is not the issue)

          • I’m not sure what you’re talking about. I have not suggested that we “limit confessional scholars from being involved in certain academic disciplines.”

            There are excellent scholars in the sciences and humanities who happen to be Christians.

            It is the discipline of theology, itself, which is biased.

          • arcseconds

            University fine arts departments don’t only sport art theorists, art historians, and art critics, but also artists. Artists are bound to be horribly biased about their own work; and the tradition, school, or style in which they work.

            Should we on this basis eject artists from the academy, and only accept people who analyse art as part of art departments?

            Similar considerations pertain to other arts, of course, like music. Stockhausen, to mention a fairly extreme example, lectured in composition at several German universities and (on a guest basis) American ones, and claimed his music found its proper audience in more evolved human beings.

            Thinking that criticism only means one’s critic is insufficiently evolved is fairly biased 😉

          • Again, as I’ve already pointed out, it’s not the bias of the scholar (or artist) that concerns me, so much as the bias of the discipline itself.

            I have no problem with a music professor who, for example, specializes in Baroque music, teaches Baroque music classes, and tends to play only Baroque music. There is room for such “bias” or specialization in the academy.

            But what if the discipline of music, as taught in virtually every institution in the country, consisted of Baroque music almost exclusively? Perhaps, other classical movements would get a mention in a music history class; perhaps, some professors would acknowledge that modernist musical pieces are played in other parts of the world. But the music theory, the music concerts and recitals, and the bulk of the music history, in almost every department of music in the nation, all center around Baroque music. No other form of music is deemed worthy of practice.

            Is this not what one finds in the discipline of theology?

          • arcseconds

            The problem you’re pointing out here is that Western universities habour Christian theology almost exclusively.

            That’s quite a different claim to the one I thought you were making, which is that an individual theologian does not have an objective view on their own activity, but rather are going all-in to argue within a particular framework which they are committed to for reasons other than an objective consideration of the evidence.

            So, if Western universities made an effort to accommodate things other than Christian theology (as a productive area where they’re actually producing theology: non-Christian theologies are certainly examined anthropologically and historically in religious studies departments), would that mean you’d cease to have a problem?

            I don’t think the analogy between music and theology is as strained as you suppose. You’re making baroque music analogous to Christian theology, but surely a better parallel would be Western classical music to Christian theology. Modernist music could then be likened to liberal theology, and baroque music might be Catholic theology of a particularly traditional sort, or something.

            Having made that parallel, if we change your second-to-last paragraph to talk about Western classical music rather than baroque music, it would be an entirely accurate and just criticism of academic music departments of 80 years ago. The Western classical tradition was almost exclusively examined, practiced and taught, and other forms of music might at best get some kind of acknowledgement of existing or perhaps as much as an interesting little ‘colour’ unit in some curriculum somewhere, or as a side-project of some professor.

            And even now the situation is not a huge amount better: jazz has been more-or-less been embraced into academic departments (it has now almost completed its transition from a form of popular music to a form of classical music). Other forms of non-Western music (indian classical music, say), to the extent they get any attention at all, are examined under ‘ethnomusicology’, which is not unlike non-Western theologies studied from an anthropological perspective in religious studies departments. This could be crticised with considerable justification as being rather colonial to say the least.

            (We could liken the adoption of jazz to having, say, new-age theologies being produced in Western universities, and I’m pretty sure that in fact happens to some extent. I’m sure if you look, you will in fact find Western buddhists and pagans producing theology or at least religious philosophy in Western institutions)

          • Yes, I was pointing out that “Western universities habour Christian theology almost exclusively”, not that “an individual theologian does not have an objective view on their own activity”.

            I think that’s pretty clear if you review the comments.

            Theologies other than Christianity have a negligible presence (if any at all) in Western universities.

          • arcseconds

            As productive theologians, perhaps. They are studied to a non-negligible extent from a more anthropological perspective.

            I actually have met several people face-to-face that have studied what could broadly be called ‘theology'(*) of religions other than Christianity (I met someone just the other week who had a book out from the library called ‘Dalit Theologies’). I don’t think I’ve met anyone personally who has studied Christian theology from an anthropological or historical perspective, or if they have, I’ve not been aware of it.

            (*) other religions don’t tend to be so concerned with the nature of God, so theology in a strict sense might not be very important to them.

          • Though it was interesting to pursue the analogy for a while, I don’t think that comparing theology to the fine arts is particularly useful, for a discipline that has traditionally been referred to as the “queen of the sciences.”

            I’m not sure what the theological equivalent of an artist would be.

          • arcseconds

            artist (composer) theologian
            art historian historian of religion
            art anthropologist / enthnomusicologist religious anthropologist

            Like a theologian, artists have their heart and soul in their work, are frequently working in a particular school or tradition (and if they aren’t, they’re paving a new way which might become a new school or tradition), and are often extremely committed to their theory or approach, consider it superior to all others, and to outsiders (many of whom are convinced the area is at best completely subjective) this may seem rather crazy.

            Seriously, you only need to read some of the stuff said by artists about their work. I’ve already mentioned Stockhausen. Modernist artists like Kadinsky spoke of creating a new, universal art ‘language’ which was free of any cultural baggage, so it would be equally comprehensible to anyone (‘equally incomprehensible’ might have been more accurate). There’s really endless extravagant claims and allegiance to strange ideas.

            And like theologians (and other religious practitioners), they provide the raw material for the other specialists to study.

            And like theology and religious studies more generally, there’s a huge bias towards the forms that have prestige in the West. Turn the clock back 80 years, and in any Western fine arts or music department non-Western traditions would have a negligible presence.

            These days, religious studies departments are, if anything, more culturally diverse in their content than music departments are, who are still for the most part pretty fixated on the Western classical tradition. Religious studies departments do include people who might be described as doing theology, and I’ve heard one thoroughly secular religious anthropologist liken this situation to ‘the psychiatrists live in the same wing with the patients’.

            Theology departments per se are fairly rare outside entirely religious institutions, as far as I know, and might be likened to a specialist art college, and specialist art colleges tend to really be quite focused on the Western tradition.

            I’ve just had a poke around École des Beaux-Arts’s studios, for example and it all looks extremely western to me. Where are the Choctaw beadwork and the Islamic calligraphy classes? That’s just one institution, of course, but I’d be quite surprised if there’s any institution or department in the West that is (a) entirely dedicated to training people in a non-Western tradition and (b) has any status comparable to École des Beaux-Arts or the Julliard School of Music, or even a moderately well-regarded University fine arts department.

            I think the analogy is actually quite a good one, as you can see there are many points at which it holds. An analogy is dismissed by showing it is disanalogous, not by complaining about historical grandiose claims made on behalf of one of the analogues. And there doesn’t seem any worry here of an important disanalogy, as there’s no end of grandiose claims on the behalf of art.

          • By all means, arcseconds, enjoy your analogy; just because I dismiss it, doesn’t mean you have to.

            The point, incidentally, was not that “queen of the sciences” is a “grandiose” claim. In fact, it’s been called that for so long, it’s a bit old hat by now.

            The point was that theology sees itself as a “science”.

          • arcseconds

            I certainly don’t have to when you don’t have a good reason for dismissing it, that’s for sure!

            I think I’ve a persuasive argument that art and music departments in the West are about as culturally biased as religious studies departments, maybe more, and dedicated art and music colleges are about as culturally biased as theology departments. If massive cultural bias and adherence by individuals to a particular tradition are reasons for saying an area has no place in universities and similar institutions, then it holds just as well for art and music as it does for theology.

            If you continue to object to theology on this basis but not art and music, but you don’t provide a reason why they should be treated differently, then I can only conclude you don’t really have a principled objection to theology.

          • If you’re trying to argue that we should rid the fine arts of western bias, congratulations, you’re making a good case. I don’t really have horse in that race.

            But I think you missed the point of my last comment (and the comment before). Not only is theology not a fine art; it has traditionally made claims of being a science. And presuppositional bias most certainly matters in science disciplines.

            Most of the useful aspects of theology departments: history, language and textual studies, epistemology – can be (and in fact are) taught in other disciplines such as religious studies and philosophy. The confessional nature of theology belongs in religious institutions and seminaries; not in institutions which value academic freedom.

            Theology as a discipline is already becoming rarer in nonreligious institutions. So I don’t, in fact, think that we need overtly banish theology; it’s dying a natural death.

          • arcseconds

            I’m not arguing anything with regard to fine arts, except that it’s at least as culturally biased as theology is.

            What I would say about it, though, is that it’s easy to take a positivistic attitude towards universities and think that they should be rationally-ordered places consisting entirely of people who study their objects of study just as objectively as nemotologists study roundworms, free from history and cultural biases.

            But they’re actually extremely arbitrary places, and cultural institutions just like any other, and like any cultural institutions reflect their history and cultural situation more than any rational ordering. Why is music composition, how to be a laywer, and nemotology all in universities, but indian classical dance, cooking, and chess not (traditionally, I’m sure these days you can find them somewhere)? It’s not like nemotology is any more like musical composition than chess is. I’m not sure there’s any other answer than historical accident and things that have prestige in the West. It’s heavily tilted towards ‘bookish’ sorts of things, of course, but anything can be bookish if you turn it into a subject for academic study!

            So I don’t think there’s really any greater reason for expecting them to be culturally unbiased (whatever that could mean) than for expecting the town square to be culturally unbiased.

            As far as academic freedom goes, there have certainly been problems say when people occupying a chair dedicated to a particular confession have said things that aren’t liked by the other followers of that confession, who have then tried to get them fired, and I agree, that’s counter to academic freedom.

            But is the confessional nature really a problem with someone being hired, say, as a member of a religious studies department, who could just as well have hired a religious anthropologist instead?

            I can’t see any academic freedom issues here. They’re not trying to control whatever anyone else studies or publishes, and the only control exercised over them is the same as any academic faces: they might not get hired, and they might not get promoted, and in some cases they may even get fired, downsized or ‘encouraged to leave’ if their work isn’t to the liking of their prospective or actual employers.

          • Cultural bias? I see more of a problem with theology’s epistemological bias.

            But I certainly don’t see any academic freedom issues with departments of religious studies, or with hiring people who have personal confessional commitments.

          • arcseconds

            You were just complaining about theology being counter to academic freedom. But you’re the one that wants theology out of the academy, and apparently because you don’t like it’s epistemology?

            If we look at, say, process theology, liberal theology, pantheism, and traditional theology, what strikes me is that there’s considerable epistemological and metaphysical diversity here. Much more so than in the natural sciences. Some believe in revelation, some do not, some believe that a particular holy text is of peculiar importance, others do not, etc.

            I reckon if you wanted to explore some novel epistemological approach, theology would be much more receptive to this than the natural sciences.

            I don’t think the charge of epistemological bias can really be sustained.

            Also, I’ve got to say, Beau, your complaints are all over the map. You complain about bias, and discuss it in a way that certainly makes it sound like it’s cultural bias your worried about (e.g. that it’s predominantly Christian). Then you complain about it being counter to academic freedom. Then you complain it thinks its a science, on nothing more than a slogan from medieval ages. When challenged on this you just note they discuss their relationship with science — hardly sounds like something to be worried about, unless it’s the universal obsession with science. Now you’re complaining about epistemological bias, despite the evident diversity in the field.

            In none of these respects is it really notably different from other areas of the academy that don’t seem to concern you at all.

            It’s difficult to come away with this with anything other than the impression that you simply don’t like theology, and are casting about for rationalisations; throwing muck to see if any of it sticks.

          • Hi arc

            Just to clarify, I’m not interested in “banning” theology or any other discipline, so you needn’t worry that I support the infringement of theology’s academic freedom. I’m perfectly happy to sit by and watch the natural decline that is already in progress.

            There’s more diversity in theology than in the natural sciences? I have to say, it’s hard to take that sort of assertion seriously. And listing a few types of Christian theology (with panentheism tossed in) does not address the charge of epistemological bias in any way.

            I’m not sure how “all over the map” stacks up as meaningful criticism. All you’ve done is listed a variety of points we’ve discussed in multiple comments. I could point to your comments on the same points and say that you are “all over the map”.

            “Cultural bias” is your phrase, not mine, derived from pointing out the predominance of Christianity in theology. One would think that the relation between this predominance and epistemological bias is obvious, as is the relation between such bias and academic freedom.

            Yes, “Queen of the Sciences” is a phrase used in the medieval era, as were other antiquated and out-dated terms like geography, physics, natural phenomena, science, etc. Honestly, if you want to assert that theology is closer to a fine art than a science, it’s theologians you’ll be arguing with, not me.

            You do realize that arguments against the legitimacy of theology as an academic discipline have been made (and continue to be made) by a number of scholars. You can call it “muck” if you like, but it’s not just my muck.

            What really confuses me about your responses, arc, is that you seem really passionately opposed to my opinion about the place of theology in the academy, but your whole defense seems basically to be that theology is no worse in bias than other disciplines (see how silly the fine arts are)? I can’t tell what you’re really passionate about (except maybe arguing).

          • arcseconds

            The ‘all over the map’ remark stems from my frustration that every time I try to engage with one complaint about theology, you bring up another, different complaint, and you don’t even seem to realise that this is what you’re doing. You’re acting as though everything you say is an obviously true, and obviously reasons why theology shouldn’t be in the academy, but nowhere do I see you making a convincing case for this. I still can’t see anything in the ‘queen of sciences’ complaint, for example.

            As far as diversity goes, it was specifically epistemic and metaphysical diversity that I mentioned. In what way do you think science is epistemically diverse? These days it’s almost universally empiricist, is it not? And empiricist in the same sort of way: it doesn’t even exhibit the diversity of the historical empiricist tradition. There’s a bit of residual rationalism lurking around, particularly in physics, and a spot of Platonism in physics, maybe, but they’re at best an addendum to the prevailing empiricism.

            Theology is far more epistemically diverse than that. Different theologians acknowledge different sources of knowledge, treat them differently, and reach radically different conclusions. They don’t even have the same idea of what their discipline is about, as far as I can tell.

            Are you perhaps only thinking of traditional theology, when you say that the area is epistemologically biased?

            Apart from generally being opposed to bad arguments, especially ones that people are offering for points they think are obvious, I don’t like discipline pissing-contests, I’m suspicious of demarcation criteria, and I don’t really like the ‘who belongs in the hallowed halls of academia’ game. I think these sorts of activities are generally just a way of structuring the academy, and society more widely, according to one’s own biases (in one’s own head if not in reality, but people with power will tend to try to make it reality, of course), and frequently unreflectively, entirely disengaged with the fields and people one is dismissing. I’m also concerned with the prestige science has, in particular the idea that all disciplines have to measure up in some way to science, and I’m worried about the dogma of the Modern Scientific Worldview. Does that put my passion in sufficient perspective?

          • Well, I still disagree with your “all over the map” statement. I did engage with your complaints, and most of what you characterize as bringing up a difficult complaint were responses to your own comments. In this regard you are just as “all over the map” as I am. And you don’t even seem to realize that this is what you’re doing.

            I am sorry that you don’t understand the “Queen of the sciences” reference. If you recall, the reference stems from the fact that theology has traditionally been seen as a discipline with a strong kinship to the sciences, and this is still true today. I made this reference to explain why I didn’t see the comparison of theology to fine arts as useful. I don’t think that theologians themselves would find such a comparison valid, especially since you tended to point out how bizarre, grandiose, and far afield the fine arts can be.

            I wonder why you now pair epistemology with metaphysics (speaking of bringing up “new complaints”). I would agree that theology has more metaphysical diversity than the natural sciences, but that was never my contention.

            I’m sorry you think I’m “pissing” on theology, but I still think it belongs in a seminary or religious institution.

            Thanks for putting your passion in perspective. I don’t share it, but I think I understand it.

          • arcseconds

            As far as I know, the ‘queen of science’ phrase dates from the Middle ages, before the notion of modern science had developed.

            My guess would be it’s a translation from the Latin ‘scientia’, and a better modern translation, which would avoid the connotation of modern empirical science, might be ‘knowledge’.

            I don’t think theologians think theology is a science in the modern sense of the term, any more than philosophers think metaphysics is. At any rate, this can’t be established by looking at an old phrase from mediæval times.

          • That depends on which theologian you talk to. It’s not very hard to find the history of theology’s academic relationship to traditional sciences, and there are still theologians who write about the fine points of this epistemological relationship.

            Of course, if you’d like to argue that we simply reorganize theology departments into the colleges of the fine arts … maybe you’re on to something … we could build up our fine arts ticket packages … one price for a play, a concert, art gallery, and a sermon …

            Maybe theology would last a little longer in the academy as performance art.

          • arcseconds

            Well, perhaps it’s best to consider it a very odd (and kind of didactic and boring) form of poetry, so maybe whereever creative writing goes? 🙂

          • arcseconds

            I’ve heard actual philosophers make the same comment about philosophers, mind… and people like Derrida tell us that everything is just text, so maybe everything should be in the Modern Languages department.

          • arcseconds

            Theologians discuss the relationship of science to theology. Philosophers discuss the relationship of philosophy to science. Artists discuss the relationship of art to science. Disciplines like history also discuss their relationship to science.

            The only discipline that doesn’t obsess about its relationship with science is science itself, and it’s also marked by its lack of concern with its relationship to other disciplines.

          • Theologies other than Christianity have a negligible presence (if any at all) in the theology departments of Western universities.

          • GodisLove

            To be honest Beau,

            I am troubled by this comment. You first presuppose that the only fields with an actual bias are theology and or those fields pursued by theists or christians, yet you ignore the fact that there are biases in every field of scholarship.

            You yourself have a bias against theology simply for philosophical or theological reasons. Your conclusion does not follow from your premise. You want to say that because theologians enter into theology with a theist bias, that therefore somehow discredits theology. But how does that follow?

            That would be like me saying that atheists enter into evolutionary biology, therefore evolution is not a credible view, nor is the field of evolutionary biology.

            You are basically saying that all theologians who study God’s existence are not credible or legitimate scholars as compared to those who study religion from a historical, literary, and sociological/psychological perspective,but this doesn’t make sense to me at all.

            How can you compare theology to religious studies, in terms of credibility? That’s simply a false dichotomy you are making. Where you pit biblical historians against theologians when they are asking different questions.

            Biblical historians aren’t experts on whether God exists or not.

          • Hi GodisLove

            I do understand that biases exist in all fields, and that they are difficult to avoid completely. However, there is a difference between a bias that belongs to an individual professor and a bias that is a presuppositional tenant of the discipline itself.

            Since you bring up evolutionary biology, I can easily point out the fact that both atheists and Christians (not to mention agnostics and adherents of other faiths) enter into the field of evolutionary biology and work sincerely to ensure that their individual biases do not unduly influence their research results, or prevent them from presenting a fair, balanced, and academically sound curriculum to their students.

            Now, in biblical studies of many kinds, the same is true. Atheists, Christians (and agnostics and adherents of other faiths) pursue biblical historical studies, language studies, textual studies, and even comparative religious studies. In fact, scholars of disparate backgrounds quite often come to the same conclusions in their work.

            It is only the discipline of theology, that requires a presuppositional belief system. That may well be appropriate for a seminary or a religious institution. But at a university, academic freedom (which is of primary importance) cannot exist where there is a religious litmus test for a specific discipline.

            Having said this, I do recognize that there are some theology departments at universities that do not require specific religious presuppositions in their hiring, compare multiple religions and humanist positions with equal and fairly unbiased weight, and for all practical purposes, operate in the same way as a department of religious studies. (And many of their professors don’t even pursue “theology” per se, but rather historical/textual/language studies, etc.) In that case, I would only suggest that a department name change is in order.

            On your last point, I personally doubt anyone’s “expertise” on the existence of God, but I certainly wouldn’t grant it to theologians, who come to the table with their minds already made on the subject. That would be like saying that only parapsychologists are experts on the existence of ESP.

            But, of course, the existence of God, is hardly the only presuppositional stance of theology. Deism doesn’t support much in the way of theology.

          • GodisLove

            Hello, Beau,

            I still am not sure why you think theology and philosophy of religion as a discipline is this way. The question of God’s existence/non-existence must be answered by somebody, and that’s what the purpose of these fields are for. Otherwise, whose going to fill the gap and solve these great problems that are one of the most important questions in human existence? Should we simply dismiss the question at all and call it meaningless(verificationism). Surely, you don’t think this question is meaningless? For if you did, then you are not really an atheist at all. And since it’s not meaningless, then that means it is open to those who pursue it. I will expand on this point below.

            I don’t really think you understand what it is that theologians or philosophers of religion do. Philosophers of religion and or theologians, are trying to study religious texts and decipher the foundations for certain belief systems via those texts. They are also trying to figure out if God exists or not(as I said above) and how he has revealed himself or not revealed himself. There are many non-Christian and secular philosophers and theologians that study religion, and many will agree on certain points(except for if God exists or what God is it that exists!), of course, that is a healthy sign that the field is vibrant and doing its job. Obviously, they can’t agree on everything but that doesn’t mean the field itself is corrupt or bad. Pointing to the goal of a field has no bearing on its legitimacy.

            I think the problem is that you are confusing lay presuppositional apologetics with actual scholarship. I know off hand from reading philosophy of religion or theologians that this is not their goal. Almost no professor who is working in philosophy of religion or theology starts their class off with “let’s talk about doing presuppositional apologetics”.

            “On your last point, I personally doubt anyone’s “expertise” on the existence of God, but I certainly wouldn’t grant it to theologians, who come to the table with their minds already made on the subject.”

            Now come on Beau, see this is exactly the point I’m making. You simply just assume things that aren’t true. If theologians aren’t experts then who is? Shall we go with Richard Dawkins “God Delusion” which is a poor attempt to argue aganist God’s existence? I would rather trust the opinion of scholars who are studying these arguments for/against God’s existence than someone who has no idea what the heck they are talking about.

            “That would be like saying that only parapsychologists are experts on the existence of ESP.”

            Is that your understanding of Philosophers and theologians who study religion? If so, then I would highly advise you to rethink your thoughts because this analogy is extremely inaccurate.

            Parapsychology is not even a real field in academia. Philosophy of Religion and theology are real fields in academia. PoR and theology are taught at secular and religious universities all across the world. Parapsychology has literally no accredited programs across the globe. Parapsychology is not published in mainstream journals in science. Theology and PoR are published in special journals both secualr and religious.

          • OK, tell the truth, Godislove. You’re really Matt Brown in disguise, aren’t you?

  • GodisLove

    How silly to criticize someone on the basis of their philosophical/theological views. And so what Wright went to a religious institution to get his degree. As long as the institution is accredited and is a top tier school then that’s all that matters.

    Dr. McGrath teaches at a private school that was founded by Church of Christ members. Does this mean that McGrath is not a real scholar? No. However, I would disagree with McGrath on the issue of miracles and the resurrection since these are not historical but philosophical issues.

    • ALL views are open to critique. Why wouldn’t they be?

  • Doug

    Maybe it’s one of those irregular verbs:
    I am a scholar
    You are an apologist
    S/he is a bigot

  • ncovington89

    Being a scholar means more than just having a PhD. Being a scholar means setting aside your personal feelings and attempting to find the truth about whatever you study. Of course, everybody has a set of biases which they cannot help, but there is a big difference between letting your biases run free and making some reasonable attempt to constrain those biases (which is what is expected of a scholar).
    When NT Wright suggests that Matthew’s zombie fest is historical because “some stories are so strange they just may have happened” or that the Zoroastrains may have borrowed the concept of resurrection from the Jews (and not the other way around) or that resurrection appearances couldn’t possibly be hallucinations because non-eyewitness accounts written several decades later speak of Jesus eating fish, Wright is manifestly not meeting that standard. Wright is a clear example of someone who lets his biases run wild, as opposed to a real scholar like Dale Allison, who is capable of distinguishing matters of faith from matters of history, even though Allison believes the resurrection just like Wright does.

  • Lawyer or juror? Why not both?

    The problem is that the lawyer is committed to zealously advocate for his client’s position once he accepts the case. The juror is committed to be as objective as he can possibly be and to render his decision solely upon the evidence. It is of course true that a lawyer may reach a conclusion about the merits of his client’s case which shapes his strategy. It is also true that a juror who becomes convinced that the evidence favors one side may advocate the conclusion he has reached to the other members of the jury. Nevertheless, advocate and fact-finder are different roles with conflicting interests.

    I think that the relationship between apologist and scholar is analogous to that between lawyer and juror. One tries to present the evidence as favorably as possible in support of a prior position. The other tries to follow the evidence where it leads him.

    • arcseconds

      Scientists zealously advocate for their own theories, and are also the ones that assess how good the theories are.

      • It is a bit different for the lawyer who is obligated by the rules of professional conduct to advocate zealously. The scholar’s advocacy arises (or should arise) from his best attempts to objectively analyse the evidence. The lawyer’s obligation arises from the attorney-client relationship regardless of what he thinks of the evidence objectively. The scholar should openly acknowledge the best counter arguments and best counter evidence to his position and meet them head on. The lawyer might choose to acknowledge some counter argument for strategic or tactical reasons, but he is under no obligation to address any weaknesses in his client’s position of which his opponent is unaware. The scholar should express no more certainty about his position than he determines is objectively warranted by the evidence. The lawyer is obligated to treat his client’s position as being as certain as he can argue it to be. The lawyer doesn’t care why the jury decides in favor of his client as long as they do, whereas the scholar should only want his peers to agree with him if they find the inferences he draws from the evidence as convincing as he does.

        • There is something nicely idealistic about your depiction. But the implication of your comment would be that, if a scholar thinks that the consensus is right about pretty much everything, they have to abandon working as a scholar. Scholars need to publish, and to do so, we need to make the case for new possibilities, and/or challenge traditional stances. Particularly when it comes to one’s PhD, I suspect that most of us by the end of the process are offering an attempt at consistently following through on our chosen model and approach, hopefully persuaded that some of it is correct, but in other cases, doing precisely what a lawyer has to do: making the best case for the view, and trusting that the truth will come out in the process of cross-examination and argumentation.

          • I realize that things do play out differently in the real world, but while I am sympathetic to the plight of the scholar who operates under the specter of “publish or perish,” I can still acknowledge that it is not conducive to the pursuit of truth. If a scholar does actually believe that his field has already been thoroughly plowed, he would ideally abandon that field in favor of one in which there was still untilled soil. I don’t think that artificially generating controversies for the sake of publication constitutes real scholarship.

            I would hope that most scholars would never do some of the things that lawyers do in advocating for their clients. For example, if a lawyer knows that his opponent is unaware of a strong argument, he would be violating his duties to his client if he brought it up. I would hope that no one condones a scholar who ignores a strong argument against his conclusion in the hopes that none of his peers will notice it even if one might sympathize with the pressure he feels to do so.

            I fear that what you are suggesting is that some scholars do not rigorously examine their own conclusions for fear that they might be forced to acknowledge that they are not very robust. Instead, they overstate their certainty in order to justify publication and leave it to their peers to find the errors in their thinking.

          • I think that you need to clarify your stance. Are you saying that the juristic approach cannot get at truth but only the attempt to be impartial in an abstract scholarly manner? Are you saying that both have the potential to get at the truth, since creating a situation in which a case is always challenged can accomplish many of the same things that impartiality can?

          • The purpose of the juristic approach is not the discovery of truth, but the resolution of disputes by giving both sides a fair opportunity to present their position to an impartial adjudicator. However, there are all sorts of procedural hurdles and technical rules concerning the presentation of evidence that have no place in an activity whose primary purpose is the pursuit of knowledge. That the decision is rendered based solely on the evidence that the parties choose to submit based on their assessment of their own self-interests makes it likely that even the most impartial juror or judge is only going to have a partial picture.

            The juristic approach has the potential to get at the truth, as does a debate, but they are both adversarial processes where the goal is to win a competition by swaying some third party whose knowledge of the subject matter is limited. Peer review is a collaborative process where the goal is to reach a consensus by persuading those who have the greatest expertise. It has a great deal more going for it than the mere fact that ideas can always be challenged.

          • Indeed, scholarship does have more going for it than the mere fact that ideas can always be challenged. It also isn’t constrained by the two sides approach of trials and debates. The sheer number of experts involved means that even those who try to hijack scholarship for ideological ends are likely to meet with significant resistance.

          • The experts’ resistance to Wright’s apologetics doesn’t seem all that significant to me. You are the only credentialed scholar I have seen who even mentions his attempt to defend the resurrection on historical grounds and you only go so far as to describe it as “a little hand waving.”

          • Ignoring something is one of the ways that scholars indicate that something that someone has said is not worth engaging with. But others, such as Dale Allison, have also addressed the point.

          • I was only talking about the reactions I have seen concerning Holloway’s article.

          • Paul E.

            Dr. McGrath, could I make a quick interposition? I was wondering if I could still request that you interact, however briefly, with the Jesus burial thoughts I sent you a few months back? I think you indicated you would try to get to it back in December? I would like to work on it a bit again, and was hoping for some guidance. I would truly appreciate it (and hope I should not make any direct inferences from the content of the post to which I am responding!). Thank you.

          • I apologize for not having done so. I will carve out some time right now and read what you sent me and respond via e-mail. Let’s also talk about some of the other possibilities that we mentioned previously, such as bringing in legal perspectives to look at how they might evaluate some of the material related to the burial of Jesus.

          • Paul E.

            I truly appreciate it, and hope I haven’t been too much of a pest about it. Thank you!

          • Kris Rhodes



  • Andrew Dowling

    I’ve always had mixed feelings about Wright. His work that is less tied to apologetic connotations (like 1st century Jewish religious environments) is fairly solid, but his apologetic aims lead to some very sloppy conclusions and worse rationalizations. That said, he’s pinned himself in America as a perfect “bridge-man” for people coming from much more conservative backgrounds to accept “some” higher criticism and an overall superior theology to what they grew up with.

    So I think his influence is a net positive, but then those conservatives-turned-moderates see Wright as a frikkin’ genius who is their “go to” man to anything about the historical Jesus, issues with Paul etc. Liberals appreciate his cordial attitudes to his more skeptical peers and his influence in said conservative circles. So he often seems to get a pass from valid criticism, at least among progressive christian circles. And I understand why, because the people who love Wright often simply can’t/won’t accept the conclusions of liberal scholarship . . I’d rather they have someone like him to turn to than stay with the likes of Piper and Mohler.

  • Jerome

    “The truth is that Wright most certainly is an apologist. He does a little hand-waving and declares resurrections historical allegedly on the basis of historical considerations, and simply decides to accept one of the Pastoral Epistles as authentic with the only justification being that sometimes it is good to revisit an issue that has been considered settled.” > how is that compatible with being a serious scholar?

    • Is the point to try to make a distinction between scholars, who as human beings may say and write things that are not strictly speaking scholarly, and “serious” scholars who do not do that? If so, I think you will find that this too is a spectrum and not a case of a simple binary with people easily categorized.