Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Thomas Thompson: The Incompetent Faithful

In the last of Alan Bandy's interviews on faith-based and secular scholarship, Thomas Thompson says bluntly:

"To the extent that a university scholar accepts the guiding principles of a specific faith, he or she is incompetent in the performance of their work as scholars. To the extent that an institution presupposes such a commitment, it is, I believe, incompetent as a university... In my experience, secular theology or university scholarship in the field of biblical scholarship is incompatible with the premises of a faith-based scholarship, which belongs to the realm of apologetics, a pursuit which may have some legitimacy within the context of a particular faith community, but which in the public or 'secular' sphere is inappropriate to both the civil service role of the university professor -- and in direct conflict with open and critical scholarly discourse."

Chris Heard retorted here, and I too disagree with Thompson, if for no other reason because faith-based scholars (yes, even evangelicals) have proven themselves entirely capable of engaging the historical critical task. As I said before, faith-based scholars can be inclined to receive history where the secular prefers not to, and vice-versa.

That's why I still like John Meier's vision of an "unpapal conclave": a Catholic, Protestant, Jew, and agnostic who have been "locked in the bowels of Harvard Divinity School, put on a spartan diet, and not allowed to emerge until they had hammered out a consensus document on who Jesus was and what he intended in his own time and place" (A Marginal Jew, Vol I, p 1). Last fall Stephen Carlson suggested improving on this by adding an evangelical, Unitarian, and atheist to the mix (see, October interview). Well, I liked Stephen's idea so much that I decided to put it into practice. For the last month there has been an "unpapal conclave" busy at work assessing the historical Jesus. I'll have more to report about this later, but for now simply wish to register my disappointment with what Thompson advocates -- and with his sweeping judgments on "faith-based incompetence" -- which can only lead to tunnel vision. Perhaps it is this sort of attitude which gives secular scholarship a bad name in some quarters.


Blogger Chris Petersen said...

I'm definitely eager to hear more about your new "conclave," especially since I am currently in volume 2 of Meier's historical Jesus work.


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