Yesterday, Christopher Skinner wrote a post lamenting that one of his colleagues denies that a teacher can separate his/her faith-commitments from his/her teaching in biblical studies (read here). He argues that it is possible to compartmentalize in order to teach objectively. I agree to some extent (i.e. one can pretend objectivity), though I am not as impressed with Academia is she is with herself so I personally don’t feel obligated to be something I am not in order to gain the appreciation of others who won’t be forced to deny their premises. I understand that those seeking to have a successful academic career in the university system must do this. Some are able and to them I tip my hat.
What caught my attention was James McGrath’s comment on the post. He writes (here), “I would comment that, even if the colleague is right, to be unable to separate the two need not mean that one’s faith tradition is allowed to override critical/academic methods. It is possible instead to be a person of faith but to accept that, in light of critical study of the Bible, you will have to change your mind about many things you once assumed.”
Again, I agree to some extent. The operative word here is “have to” and “must”. No, no one has to change their mind about anything because of critical scholarship. For one, critical scholarship has as much disagreement on various things as it does agreement. I understand that the university must discover new and novel insights to secure funding, but the church doesn’t owe the university utter allegiance. We don’t have to go this way and that way with every SBL annual meeting.
Second, there are premises that drive critical scholarship that we may not be able to reconcile with reading through “eyes of faith”. If we believe God speaks in Scripture what can we do. We will read it differently than someone who sees the canon as merely a collection of documents that provide insight into the beginning of a religion.
Third, epistemological humility demands that we do not always forsake the traditions of the church for the whims of academia just because they say something novel. If we decide to be mavericks against the ‘Great Tradition’ it better be in “fear and trembling” to steal a phrase from Kierkegaard! We better be sure in our guts that we are doing the right thing. If you can’t say with Luther, “Here I stand. I can do no other!” then patiently be agnostic about something until you can further explore traditions claims against the new insights of academia.
So I say yes, we must listen to critical scholars. No, we must not affirm their conclusions. To do so by default is (in my opinion) to assume that a certain group of scholars monopolize biblical studies. There are legitimate “scholars” of Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, Pentecostal, and many other persuasions that bring different premises that must be discusses and explored but that do not coincide with a secularized approach to Scripture. These scholars are just as good as secularized scholars and their voices are just as valuable.
So yes, listen, but be critical. Be as critical of what is new as you are of what is old. There is usually a good reason for why Christian tradition has become Christian tradition. There is usually a good reason why it has staying power while modern scholarship fluctuates like the sea.