Saturday, April 4, 2009

Apologetics, Logic, and Critical Bible Scholarship

One of my professors tells an anecdote about a prominent evangelical Old Testament scholar's visit to our (secular) biblical studies program many years ago.

According to the tale, nearly the first words out of the scholar's mouth were "I'm trained as a lawyer and I'm here to defend the Bible." My professor recounts being taken aback and thinking, "But no one's attacking it here."

This story illustrates perfectly the unilateral war waged by some conservative scholars against the evil empire of "secular" and "liberal" critical Bible scholars. In other words, the conservative side defends and "refutes" the results of the "liberal" side which in turn mostly ignores the attack completely.

Ironically, there was a time when I wanted to be that guy from the story. I was interested in "proving" the Bible was history, and his articles and books were the pinnacle of biblical scholarship in my view. I once asked one of my Bible professors if I should pursue Apologetics as scholarly career, and he gently dissuaded me. At least I realized that what I was doing in arguing against the results of historical-critical Bible scholarship was Apologetics, not critical scholarship.

I've had a lot of time to reflect on some of the issues and arguments that I was passionate about back then, and I've detected a pattern in the kind of argument that conservatives typically marshal against theories like the Documentary Hypothesis, three-part authorship of Isaiah, or the date of the Exodus. The reason their "counter-attacks" are ignored by mainstream Bible scholars is that their logic starts with theology, not textual evidence. The argument goes something like this.

Starting Point:  Theological commitment to the literal accuracy of the text.

Step 1:  Harmonize all evidence that doesn't quite jive with the literal reading of the text.

Step 2:  People who reject the literal meaning of the text are heretics, liberals, and non-believers with an agenda to prove the Bible is false.  Demonize them.

Step 3:  Reject and refute their critical arguments about the text. If those arguments are wrong, then the literal reading must be right.

Result:  Vindication of the theological commitment to the literal accuracy of the text.

The problems with this chain of reasoning should be immediately apparent. First of all, it's circular.  Classic "begging-the-question."  If you already know the answer that must be reached, how can you objectively handle the evidence? 

Second, the "if they're wrong, then we must be right" argument does not prove anything. It's just playing the fallacy of the false dilemma. There are only two options so disproving one, proves the other. doesn't.

Along with that, the uncertainty or flexibility inherent in critical arguments cannot serve as proof that their conclusions are invalid. The argument that if the source hypothesis for the Pentateuch was correct than all scholars would divide the sources exactly the same way is flawed in this way. The fact that so many scholars notice something about the text that leads them to make those divisions speaks to the fact that there's an issue there to explore. Differing on the details doesn't disqualify the question. Retreating to a literal or traditional answer is often simplistic, ignoring the depth and complexity of the biblical tradition.

Since apologetic logic starts with a theological commitment, the apologists assume that their opponents (critical Bible scholars) are similarly starting from a philosophical commitment and are motivated chiefly by a desire to prove the Bible is false. The argument is about belief first, evidence second. This is, in my view, an unfortunate caricature. I'm not saying that all Bible scholars are objective and uninfluenced by their world views. Indeed, a few seem like they are chiefly motivated by a desire to disprove the Bible. (I can think of one in particular.) But by and large, critical Bible scholars have reached their "heretical" conclusions after honestly wrestling with the evidence of the text. The conclusion is dictated by the evidence; it is the end result, not the beginning premise.

This was the startling revelation that I experienced when I read Wellhausen for myself. I came to learn that his Documentary Hypothesis was borne out of an earnest struggle to understand the text of the Bible on its own terms, driven by his love for the Bible, not a hateful desire to disprove it.

I don't want to disparage the contribution to Bible scholarship of those scholars who have taken this more defensive posture in their work. However, it is important to realize that their arguments will not be admitted in a secular biblical studies forum where theological axioms are not valid starting points for debate.

On the other hand, I wonder if they know that their war is one-sided, that the critical scholars pan their arguments if they even bother to pay attention at all. It's just occurred to me that the purpose of apologetics in this context is not to prove to the other side that they're wrong. It's to circle the wagons and keep those young impressionable minds from wandering to the dark side. 

By poisoning the well against the arguments of critical Bible scholarship, they preserve the status quo for the next generation. It's too bad really. Why not just teach them to think for themselves? Contrary to popular belief, critical Bible scholarship and faith are not necessarily mutually exclusive.


  1. I find this all really well put, especially the illustrations of the classic logical fallacies.

    In my experience so far, this is exactly the kind of thinking that an introductory seminary class might be ready for after they've stubbed their own toes on the literary seams of the Pentateuch for a week or three. The non-polarizing, non-confrontational tone provides a nice model for continued discussion.

    You express clearly many of the things that I struggle to say with students at different times. Thanks!


  2. Great post Doug. I agree with you and am right where you're at when it comes to appropriating critical scholarship with faith. Very well written.

  3. Doug, really excellent post. I absolutely agree.

  4. Thanks for the comments. Glad to know I'm not the only one who thinks about these things.

  5. "Since apologetic logic starts with a theological commitment, the apologists assume that their opponents (critical Bible scholars) are similarly starting from a philosophical commitment and are motivated chiefly by a desire to prove the Bible is false."

    Why does "apologetic logic" have to "start with a theological commitment"? All an apology is is a defense. The critical scholar is defending their position just as much as the Christian apologist. Does their "logic" start with a theological commitment?

    And just so I'm clear, are you denying that critical scholars are starting from a "philosophical commitment"? Or are you just saying that they're not philosophically committed to disproving the Bible? I'm sure you'd agree that they have to have some kind of starting place, right? And if not a philosophical commitment then what? As the illustrious Bultmann said, there can never be a presuppositionless exegesis.

  6. Wow...Nick, you're commenting on a Blogger blog, and raising some good questions. I will attempt to answer them.

    I'm speaking from my own experience with "apologetic logic." And I'm thinking of the special brand of apologetics that characterizes conservative approaches to biblical studies - especially on issues of authorship or historicity.

    Yes, an apology is a defense, but it's a defense against an attack that's more perceived than real. I mean that the critical scholars aren't setting out to undermine anyone's theological convictions (well, some are, but not most).

    Most of the time critical scholars do not engage in attempting to defend their positions against apologists (the exception being the handful that are driven to undermine people's theological convictions).

    In dealing with textual difficulties with the Bible, logic should start with the textual evidence, not with a belief that must be defended (often in spite of the evidence).

    Few people nowadays would claim to have a pure scientific objectivity. But ideally, the Bible critic should approach the evidence with an open mind, letting the evidence lead to the conclusion. I'll admit that it doesn't always happen that way, and we sometimes have a preconceived notion of what we're going to find.

    I'm not denying that critical scholars have assumptions and presuppositions at all. I'm just saying that one of those assumptions is not usually or necessarily a philosophical commitment to disprove the Bible. Conservative arguments against the results of critical Bible scholarship tend to assume this dichotomy of beliefs - we're trying to prove the Bible is true and they're trying to prove it is false. Again, there are exceptions, especially among the former "faithful" turned disgruntled atheist Bible scholars.

    But most of us got into studying Bible because we enjoyed the Bible, not because we hated it and wanted to undermine organized religions.

    Thanks for your questions, Nick.

  7. Hi Doug,

    I would like to suggest a couple of things. First, concerning motivation, and assuming acceptance of the Bible, I would suggest that you might be working with too high a view of human motivations. Or perhaps put another way, I am not sure that you really give enough credence to what it means to be fallen. Does the Bible really teach that those outside the community of faith really love the Scriptures?

    Second, I suggest that "critical scholars aren't setting out to undermine anyone's theological convictions." Of course they are. Otherwise they would keep their opinions to themselves. All of us who work in the academic world are attempting to persuade. I would suggest that critical scholars are indeed attempting to undermine "theological convictions" that they believe are pre-critical, traditional, or simply naive.

  8. Thanks for your comment, Charles.

    I'm trying to keep a distinction between what I might believe about the Bible theologically and what I can argue academically. An academic argument can't rest on a theological foundation.

    Much of what you've said, Charles, brings theology back in to govern the discussion.

    I am not sure that you really give enough credence to what it means to be fallen. Does the Bible really teach that those outside the community of faith really love the Scriptures?

    Here you've created an "us vs. them" split. I read this as implying that critical Bible scholars are by definition people outside the community of faith. I don't believe that's true at all. You've also invoked theology to relegate the study of the Bible by anyone outside of faith as necessarily driven by a hatred for God and love of sin.

    I agree in part that critical scholars view many theological assumptions about the Bible as "pre-critical, traditional, or simply naive." Maybe those theological assumptions should be reconsidered? Are they necessary?

    However, I think you're confusing what critical scholars may think about those theological assumptions after they hear them with what motivates them before they come to the text.

    My point is that most critical Bible scholars don't wake up in the morning and think - "what can I do today to undermine Christian theology through my scholarship?" The fact that they publish their results does not speak to their motivations, so I don't quite understand your remark that "Otherwise they would keep their opinions to themselves."

    Is it really such a hard thing to tell the difference between applying religion (i.e., theology) and studying religion (i.e., academic religious studies)?

  9. Douglas,

    Part of the problem here (it seems to me) is one of labels. We use terms like "critical scholarship" and "evangelical scholarship" without really defining who we're talking about. There's a vast difference between Bruce Waltke, Brevard Childs, and Podunk Bible College....just like there's considerable differences between O'Connor, Fox, Alter, Friedman, etc.

    So I hear your concern...but it strikes me as an over-generalization. For example, someone like Childs or Waltke (as you're probably aware) would essentially agree with your "starting point"...but they argue vastly differently from a fundamentalist that's not terribly concerned to deal carefully with the text.

    I think Nick's point is important. While II Tim 3:16 has become a anti-intellectual bunker for many a fundamentalist to shirk away from the difficult matters of the text, it's still (as Childs would say) making a 'theological' claim about Scripture. And you either agree with that or you don't. Where you come down on that question may not affect *everything* built on top of it, the differences in 'applying religion' and 'studying religion' are consequential to how one approaches matter of the text.


  10. Matt,
    I was intentional about NOT labeling who was who in this kind of a debate. Also, as I commented to Nick, I'm writing out of my own experience with conservatives who still argue this way. If I were attempting to split scholarship into "evangelical" and "critical" categories, then that would certainly be an over-generalization. It's my opinion that it's possible to be both, and some of the names you've mentioned tend to be more careful with the text.

    On the other hand, I've read articles from some of them that essentially fall into this same pattern -- "I must argue X because of my commitment to a certain theological reading of the text."

    But there's also a difference between consciously adopting a theological perspective in exegesis aimed at a particular faith community and dogmatically defending a theological conclusion about the history or authorship of the text against everyone who thinks otherwise.

    Yes, 2 Tim 3:16 makes a theological claim. It's also a theological commitment to make someone's response to that verse govern the value of all their exegesis. That may be ok in the context of a faith community where exclusivistic claims about the correctness of the group's way of reading Scripture are typical, but the academic approach to biblical studies knows no such certainty.

  11. "Since apologetic logic starts with a theological commitment, the apologists assume that their opponents (critical Bible scholars) are similarly starting from a philosophical commitment and are motivated chiefly by a desire to prove the Bible is false."I think you accurately point out one thread of the apologist's logic there, assuming that others come into the debate with fixed presuppositions like they have.

    But maybe going a level under that,I have seen (been accused myself) of trusting in "my own reasoning," rather than trusting "God's reasoning," in my study of the bible. So their presupposition is that if you question their interpretations, you are trusting in your own fallible ability to reason, instead of trusting and believing in God (and his perfect Word). So that plays into their perception that the critical biblical scholar is trying to prove the bible is false. It is the epitome of the us vs. them mentality.

  12. "Contrary to popular belief, critical Bible scholarship and faith are not necessarily mutually exclusive."

    John Butzu