Sunday, April 19, 2009

What Does it Mean to be "Critical"?

This post is intended to clarify my earlier statements about apologetics and critical Bible scholarship - here and here. Clarification is necessary because I didn't adequately define my terms in a way that accounted for the diversity of my audience. Note especially the reaction and wide-ranging discussion (still going on several days later) at Nick Norelli's blog.

Some who read the earlier posts knew exactly what I was talking about through shared experiences, similar background, or similar education. (I think I can count Brooke, Jay, Art, and Calvin in this group.) For others, my thoughts were a confusing rant about something they didn't see a problem with, or more accurately, they understand apologetics in a different sense, so they weren't sure what exactly I was talking about. (I think Nick and many of the commenters there might fall in this category.)  And I'm sure a few readers likely fell into a third category - those who perceive my posts as an apologia in favor of "higher criticism" contrived as a deliberate counter-attack against the truth of Scripture.  If you are in this last group (and I can't definitely pin down any commenters as definitely coming from here), all I can say is that such is not the case, though I doubt you will believe me.

My clarification answers two main questions:

1) What type of apologetics am I referring to? Or better, who are the "apologists" in my discussion?
2) Can one engage in apologetics and still be doing critical scholarship?

First, I am not concerned with the apologists out there arguing issues of worldview from a philosophical / theological perspective.  In my mind, that's a different thing to be engaged in arguing over philosophy and belief. It also doesn't apply (directly) to my topic because philosophy and belief can exist apart from any "hard" evidence to support the system. (Yes, I know . . . our philosophy affects how we deal with the hard evidence - that's a separate but related issue.) My comments were aimed at a different sort of apologetics (though I believe those engaged in it similarly think issues of belief and worldview are at stake).

I was referring primarily to those who argue against "liberal" biblical scholars (as though critical Bible scholarship was a monolithic entity) about issues like Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, single authorship of Isaiah in the time of Hezekiah, the early date for the book of Daniel, and the early date of the Exodus.  Their mission statement could read something like this: "We believe Moses wrote the Pentateuch, Isaiah and Daniel predicted the future, and the Exodus happened in 1446 BC. We will defend these beliefs against all attacks and refute all the so-called evidence of the evil empire of higher criticism." Nothing anyone says will convince them that they're wrong because admitting they were wrong amounts to a denial of the truth of Scripture - the Bible clearly affirms that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, etc. The bottom line is that they're always defending the same thing - their doctrine of Scripture. Take the date of the Exodus as an example.
1. 1 Kings 6:1 says it occurred 480 years before Solomon's fourth year.
2. If the Bible is true, then it has to be talking about a literal 480 years. 
3. Therefore, 1446 BC is the only option (unless we have reasonable evidence to tweak the chronology of Solomon's ascension to the throne).
4. All evidence suggesting it didn't happen at all can be dealt with by appealing to our lack of knowledge because absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence.
5. All evidence suggesting it happened later must be refuted or outfitted with a nice harmonizing explanation that allows it to still fit with the conclusion that must be true.
Is it possible to fairly deal with the evidence when one's already committed to an answer?  I'll admit this can be a problem among scholars, too, whether committed to a religious perspective or not, but it seems to show up in a particularly well-developed and dogmatic form among conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists. (And perhaps Nick is right that my problem is more with fundamentalism than with apologetics per se.) In his review of G. K. Beale's The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism, James McGrath writes:
In the chapter on the question of whether the book of Isaiah could have had multiple authors, Beale purports to be defending the Bible, but he is of course defending his doctrine
of Scripture, and at times it becomes clear that he is determined to
defend his doctrine of Scripture even from Scripture itself. Rather
than allow the contents of this influential and powerful prophetic book
to determine his conclusion, he is determined to force it into a
straightjacket determined by his presuppositions about the Bible in
general, and about the meaning of the New Testament when it refers to
"Isaiah" in particular.
I think this illustrates how the boundaries between apologetics and Bible scholarship are fuzzy.  I'm not familar with much of Beale's work (not being a NT student myself), but I'm willing to recognize his commentaries as Bible scholarship. This latest book appears to have crossed the line to apologetics, defending belief more than offering an understanding of the text of Scripture on its own terms.

Now for the second question (and the title of this post), what does it mean to be "critical"? Can one be engaged in apologetics and still be doing critical scholarship? In my view, the answer is no . . . but I'll admit that one could go back and forth between the two in an otherwise scholarly work.  Once one has crossed from an argument based on evidence to an argument motivated by belief, one is no longer being critical. My opinion is based on my definition of apologetics. I don't consider any defense of one's ideas to be apologetics because there is a huge difference between defending a conclusion derived from one's careful examination of evidence (e.g., defense of a dissertation) and defending a belief or worldview because one is committed to it being right.

Being critical involves evaluating evidence, examining presuppositions, and noticing how interpretation is affected by those presuppositions. I'm not claiming that objective, neutral exegesis is the goal, though I believe some objectivity is possible (despite the fact that it's philosophically fashionable at present to deny objectivity and claim we're all slaves to the presuppositions of our worldviews, whether religious, anti-religious, or philosophical). I believe recognizing those presuppositions and being open to re-evaluating them is a measure of objectivity.

So what does it mean to be "critical" for Bible scholarship? It means continually challenging, questioning, and evaluating interpretations of Scripture, including our own, with a willingness to change our minds if necessary. I don't know many apologists (or fundamentalists) who do that.

Acknowledgments: My thinking is indebted in part to the blog posts and comments not only here but at the various posts linked to above. Some of what I've said here is responding to or affirming what's been mentioned there. Special thanks to the insightful commenters at Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth (no, they're not all insightful but I'm trying to be nice.)

14 comments:

  1. Great post. You can definitely count me into the group that not only gets what you are talking about, but agrees with your evaluation.

    I found this point particularly insightful: "Once one has crossed from an argument based on evidence to an argument motivated by belief, one is no longer being critical."

    That line brought to mind Jon Levenson's title essay in The Hebrew Bible, The Old Testament, and Historical Criticism where he argues along similar lines: namely, that much that has flown under the banner of "critical Old Testament scholarship" has been driven by Christians who has sought only to use critical methods to affirm their previously held theological beliefs...and how this has been unhelpful to critical scholarship.

    I found this post to be just as helpful.

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  2. "My opinion is based on my definition of apologetics. I don't consider any defense of one's ideas to be apologetics because there is a huge difference between defending a conclusion derived from one's careful examination of evidence (e.g., defense of a dissertation) and defending a belief or worldview because one is committed to it being right."I think your definition of apologetics is problematic because it's not really what apologetics is. I recognize your right to define terms how you're using them, but such redefinitions will probably result in confusion. I'd call what you take issue with fideism, not apologetics, or better yet fideistic apologetics (since the implication in your statement is that the committment to being right isn't based upon careful examination of evidence).

    "Their mission statement could read something like this: "We believe Moses wrote the Pentateuch, Isaiah and Daniel predicted the future, and the Exodus happened in 1446 BC. We will defend these beliefs against all attacks and refute all the so-called evidence of the evil empire of higher criticism.""Like I said in my post, there are any number of scholars who have studied the evidence and come to different conclusions from those you might find convincing. I'm not convinced that this makes them any less critical than the next scholar. The undercurrent of this post and your last seems to me to be that they can't possibly be right, and their conclusions can't possibly be the result of critical evaluation of the evidence. But if these are their conclusions after studying the evidence then why should they not defend them?

    "...I believe some objectivity is possible (despite the fact that it's philosophically fashionable at present to deny objectivity and claim we're all slaves to the presuppositions of our worldviews, whether religious, anti-religious, or philosophical). I believe recognizing those presuppositions and being open to re-evaluating them is a measure of objectivity."It's not just 'philosophically fashionable', it's demonstrably true. And while I'd describe being open to re-evaluating presuppositions as 'honest' rather than 'objective' it doesn't change the fact that we all approach everything with one influence or another. I see being objective like being pregnant, you can't be a little bit of either. You either are or you aren't.

    In any event, thanks for the clarification.

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  3. This was a good post Doug, but I think most of the argument at both sites (here and Nick's blog) is semantical.

    Nick and I obviously define apologetic differently than you do, so the distinction is not as clear. I'm viewing the term as "one who gives a defense." For instance, I would count N.T. Wright, Richard Bauckham, Larry Hurtado, Martin Hengel as New Testament apologetic scholars. They are giving a defense for a biblically-oriented faith. They are also critical scholars by all accounts.

    I think Robert Price, Jimmy Tabor are also just as much apologetic writers as evangelicals like Craig Blomberg and Greg Beale. They are defending a different set of assumptions and a different perspective, which is no more objective. They are all defending their views, yet in so doing are being critical scholars (Blomberg and Beale as well).

    I think that Bill Arnold, Pete Enns, Tremper Longman, Phil Long, Ian Provan, et. al. are apologists since they are giving a defense of how to read the Old Testament in view of their personal confession.

    Personally, I hold to a very late date for the Torah. Not Davies, Lemche, etc. late, but later than most other evangelicals, and in line with many critical scholars. I think that it's origins are from a mixture of sources, legends and stories which derive from a cultural memory of events that reshaped the people of God. I came to my conclusions through reading evangelical scholars like Walton, Arnold, etc. who are both apologists and critical scholars in my estimation.

    So like I said above, I think that the difference between what you and I are saying is semantical for the most part. I'm not talking about fundamentalist apologetics, but critical scholars who are also presenting their work in a way that it supports their personal confession.

    Maybe you can help clarify for me (and I'll read Levenson's essay mentioned by Art), because I fail to see how Bauckham for instance is not both an apologist and critical scholar.

    BTW, I hope that I was one of the commenters that you deemed "insightful." If not, I apologize!

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  4. "I'm not claiming that objective, neutral exegesis is the goal, though I believe some objectivity is possible (despite the fact that it's philosophically fashionable at present to deny objectivity and claim we're all slaves to the presuppositions of our worldviews, whether religious, anti-religious, or philosophical)."I frequently see such claim from conservative Christians, and I am wondering who your reference is in regard to. Is it fashionable outside the area of conservative/fundamentalist/evangelical apologetics to make this claim? I seriously doubt that it is demonstrably true we are slaves to our presuppositions. I do think most of us, myself included, can be hopelessly biased in our beliefs, but that is different than being a slave to presuppositions. I think to make that claim denies that we can evaluate evidence at all, at which point all discussion about the value of any evidence against any other evidence becomes moot. I have only seen strict Calvinists make that claim forcefully.

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  5. JKG,
    I don't know if anyone would claim to be a slave to their presuppositions. I think the point is that we must first address core presuppositions before analyzing the evidence, because they will affect how we view the evidence at hand.

    I actually began coming to a view toward seeing everything through the lens of axioms and presuppositions while enrolled at a "liberal" school of religion. The common teaching was that all texts were written as power plays by the author, and that getting at the original intent of any author is impossible. To do such we would have to deconstruct our own reading as well as the worldview of the author, which is impossible. Instead, we should search for creative readings of texts based on our own perspectives. The reader creates the meaning of the text, sometimes the community, but never the author.

    I think any perspective that has been somewhat influenced by postmodern deconstruction will highlight the influence of presuppositions. In more standard philosophy, I think the post-foundationalist crowd (which is most everyone nowadays) would make these points as well.

    So even though it may be the common among strict Calvinists, it's also standard in many "liberal" schools of religion and philosophy/theology departments throughout academia. For obvious reasons, it's more common in theology than biblical studies, but some guys (like Dale Martin for instance...and some other guys at Yale) would be examples of these ideas in biblical studies from a non-conservative perspective.

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  6. Nick:

    The undercurrent of my posts wasn't that those conservative positions are wrong (about Moses, Isaiah, the Exodus, etc.) but that they can't be conclusively proven based on the available evidence. I believe that anyone who holds to those narrow ideas about authorship after looking at the evidence probably didn't give (or wasn't able to give) it an honest evaluation. I think there can be honest disagreements on how to interpret the evidence, but the discussion often falls back to rebuttals followed by a claim for vindication of the originally unprovable claim for traditional authorship. "I can explain your evidence another way; therefore, Moses wrote . . ."

    But, Nick, I think we may have to agree to disagree on this topic because I think Ranger's right that we're mostly arguing about semantics.

    Ranger:

    Your comments have been helpful. Like I said, scholars can move between defending their personal beliefs and presenting a scholarly interpretation and so be in both groups. However, I think the danger comes when the belief system so biases the consideration of the evidence such that they cannot admit error in their beliefs, so they must make the evidence fit the system of belief.

    JKG:

    The "slave to presuppositions" statement should be taken as hyperbole referring to something more realistic as you've said "hopelessly biased in our beliefs." But it's not just a claim made by conservatives. They just like to play the "you're influenced by your beliefs as much as I am by mine" card. It seems to be part of post-post-modernist thinking that (in my opinion) is heading close to saying that we can't evaluate evidence at all because we're all biased and just defending our points of view. Hence we're all apologists and maybe it's "demonstrably true" because we all have an agenda. But I also doubt that's demonstrably true, as you've said.

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  7. I wrote the above before seeing Ranger's 9:12 am comment. Ranger appears to be more savvy than me on the labels for current trends of thought. I hadn't heard "post-foundationalist" before. I think we were pointing out the same thing though. This is a trend of thinking that started with "liberal" approaches to text and meaning and literature.

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  8. Doug: Yeah, my main beef has been primarily semantical, i.e., the definition of 'apologetics.' I don't necessarily disagree with you on the substance of what you're saying, just the way that certain terms are being used.

    And I understood your remark about being 'slaves' to be hyperbole. With Ranger I'd say that we're not necessarily slaves, but we have to acknowledge that we don't approach anything on neutral ground. There's always some kind of influence whether we're aware of it or not. That being said, I don't think it follows from saying that we're influenced by one thing or another (and honestly, who could disagree with that?) to saying that we can't evaluate evidence.

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  9. "That being said, I don't think it follows from saying that we're influenced by one thing or another (and honestly, who could disagree with that?) to saying that we can't evaluate evidence."That is well said Nick, and an important distinction. My feeling is that until people are on board with that understanding, there is no point in discussing evidence.

    I have specifically been told by a conservative Christian that "our starting assumptions will determine how we interpret evidences" and that my assumption is that "[my] mind is the best means [I] have of determining truth." To me that sounds like another way of saying, "Your mind is made up before you even look at the evidence." Could a distinction like this be at the heart of the distinction between "apologist" and "critical scholar" that is referenced in the original post? The negative sense of "apologist" is one who assumes all interpretations are dictated by initial assumptions? Rather than saying the interpretations of influenced by initial assumptions.

    By the way, I'll admit to being way out of my league here, so please don't be reluctant to respond accordingly. I have really appreciated everyone's comments in this discussion.

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  10. All scholars who defend their positions are apologists, but not all apologists are scholars. Scholarship requires the position to be reached in a particular manner and defended in a particular manner consistent with the pursuit of truth and knowledge.

    The apologist is more like a lawyer in court. It is not the job of the legal advocate to decide the validity of his client’s claim. That is the job of the judge and the jury. The lawyer takes the validity of his client’s claim as a given when he accepts the case.

    The scholar, on the other hand, is expected to have thoroughly researched the matter on his own in order to determine that the position he is defending is objectively correct. He is expected to present his findings in a way that demonstrates the validity. He is expected to demonstrate that he has adequately considered and met competing theories and counter-arguments.

    The lawyer, on the other hand, is under no obligation to bring any competing theory or counter-argument to the attention of the jury. He may choose do so for tactical reasons; however, he is completely free to ignore counter-arguments if he thinks that his opponent has overlooked them or that the jury would be confused by them. If there is evidence that would be particularly devastating to his client’s position, the lawyer is completely justified in using procedural devices to try to have the evidence excluded rather than answering it.

    The lawyer’s job is to persuade a jury that is not expected to have any prior familiarity with the issues and that is not expected to consider any evidence or arguments other than those presented by the lawyer. The scholar’s job is to persuade other scholars who are intimately familiar with the issues and who are free to raise any challenge whatsoever.

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  11. Douglas,

    I agree completely with your definition of “critical” when it comes to Biblical scholarship. Unless we are willing to continually challenge, question, and evaluate interpretations of Scripture, we will never learn because learning implies, as you said, “a willingness to change our minds.”

    Claude Mariottini

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  12. Vinny, thanks for the comment. I think your lawyer analogy is very appropriate and gets to the heart of the distinction I was trying to make.

    Claude, I'm glad you agree. We can't learn if we're unwilling to consider other possible answers.

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  13. I agree that Vinny's comparison is a good one, and I’ll expand a bit on what he says about including or excluding evidence.

    What are the obligations of each group when new evidence comes to light? The attorney (our apologist) must not change her position no matter what new evidence comes to light. Her obligation is to stick with her guns. The scholar, though, is obliged to re-evaluate her claims, modifying or even reversing them if the new evidence warrants it. For the scholar, like the scientist, all claims are held as provisional, never as final.

    New evidence never ruins a scholar’s day. It makes her day, whatever mess it may make of her claims.

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