Saturday, February 25, 2006

Faithful and Faithless Scholars

Prompted by a post from Danny Zacharias, James Crossley offers some wisdom about faith-based scholarship. Readers of this blog won't be surprised that I agree largely with what James has to say, though I would react a bit differently to Danny's opinion that "the best biblical scholarship comes from a 'faith-base'." I both disagree with this statement (as James does) and agree with it, meaning that the statement is entirely useless. Some faith-based scholars have done priceless work: Dale Allison, Philip Esler, John Meier -- even evangelicals like Scot McKnight and Richard Bauckham -- are all good examples. Others, while having made important contributions, leave too much to be desired: Tom Wright and Ben Witherington come readily to my own mind.

I suspect that Danny is applying the term "faith-based" to relatively conservative and/or evangelical scholars. But what about liberally faith-based scholars -- like Marcus Borg? Would Danny say that they have produced some of the "best biblical scholarship"? I wouldn't (just as I doubt he would), and I'd frankly be hard pressed to choose between a Wright and a Crossan.

Secular scholars can't be lumped under an umbrella anymore than the faithful. I consider Bart Ehrman to be one of the very best secular critics; Bill Arnal is quite sharp, but he either hits or misses with me altogether; and I almost never agree with what Burton Mack has to say. So what can I possibly say about secular scholars, who like me find the bible engaging without a faith-perspective? Not much meaningful.

One should be exceedingly distrustful of anyone who claims that biblical scholarship is best served by any group of people, whether traditionally faith-based, liberally faith-based, or secular. Each has its stars and lemons. Neither a Christian world-view nor an Enlightened one can possibly guarantee better results in the field of historical criticism. Come to think of it, that just strikes me as plain common sense.

UPDATE: See further posts by Alan Bandy, Tyler Williams, and the Blogger Cooler roundup at Deinde.

UPDATE (II): Stephen Carlson doesn't care for the vague and inconsistently interpreted term "faith-based". Some good points here.


Blogger Alan S. Bandy said...

Thanks for your thoughts. I, of course, come from a "faith-based" perspective and so typically allign myself with the conclusions of like-minded scholars. This, however, does not suggest that I completely ignore or totally disregard the scholarship of secular scholars.

Wisdom is proved right by her deeds.

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Wisdom is proved right by her deeds.


Blogger Wayne Leman said...

I agree with you, Loren. The test of good scholarship is whether, well, it is good scholarship. And I consider good scholarship to be that which best accounts for the data, or, sometimes, with a lesser goal, since so much of life lacks absolute certainty, good scholarship is that which better accounts for the data.

I have seen books, attempting to be scholarly, written by people of faith (I'm not specifying which kind) and yet which lack serious scholarly insights. Having faith does not guarantee quality of scholarship nor does lack of faith. A work should simply stand on its own merits.

Thank you for posting this important piece.

Blogger Paul said...


I suppose it all depends on what one thinks (Bible) scholarship is supposed to accomplish. Of course that is a question almost always left unasked.

In a field like engineering, lets say, scholarship would be that which advances the knowledge of the field in such a way as to allow for better uses of things. When we come to the Bible, though the question of what the scripture is for (not to mention who it is for) is almost always ignored or historicized by contemporary scholars. By "historicized" I mean that they ask the question of "who" only in relation to the "original" audience.

In particular, when it comes to New Testament scholarship and NT theology, I can't help but think of claims like Paul's in I Corinthians indicating that the things of God cannot be understood apart from having the Spirit of God (2:14 and context).

So while I am willing to accept ideas from whoever, I also recognize that from a christian perspective there are "inside" scholars and "outside" scholars and that at some level their lines of thought will always be incommensurable.

Make any sense??

On this subject there are a number of fine essays by Duke prof Stanley Hauerwas which state these ideas more fully and intelligently.


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