Tuesday, April 3, 2012

What You Should Know about Modern Biblical Scholarship

[Clarification: I want to be sure to note that I am referring in this post to conclusions and reconstructions/deconstructions that are made by modern liberal scholars, not merely the observational data of modern biblical scholarship, which even many conservatives accept as compatible with the views of orthodox Christianity]

I’m reading a couple different books right now that deal with the history of biblical studies within the last couple centuries. What continually amazes me is when I hear some comment sneering at conservative scholars for making the observation that the critical study of the Bible is often beset with naturalistic presuppositions that determine its conclusions. Certain scholars often then accuse these conservative scholars of just playing the bias card without dealing with the significant observations that have been made by critical scholarship.They'll then make a distinction between "real" scholars who work according to methodologies that are based upon a reliable framework for yielding accurate conclusions (i.e., what is normative within a naturalistic, closed system) and scholars who are apologists for their faith. One is supposedly of faith and the other of fact. Let me just say at the get go that this is complete nonsense. Everyone is an apologist for his faith, regardless of what that faith might be. Everyone.

Noted. Some conservative scholars do just say this without themselves understanding the distinctions of bias and presupposition (but then again neither do the more liberal scholars I’ve run into); and, indeed, critical scholarship has made some interesting observations that conservatives would do well to actually engage once and awhile. However, data is data. It doesn’t interpret itself, and therefore, there is no such thing as a self evident fact when it comes to historical inquiry. All data is interpreted within a philosophical framework that carries with it presuppositions based upon ultimate beliefs that a priori exclude the likelihood of certain probabilities given that framework.

What this means is that where you start is going to determine where you are allowed to end. You may have multiple options concerning where to go, but your presuppositions will determine the boundaries, marking off what is an acceptable conclusion given those set of presuppositions and what is not acceptable given the same.

This is important to note about modern [i.e., liberal] critical study of the Bible. When historical ideas concerning how the Bible was put together, whether Christianity develops along the lines of a Hegelian model of humanly produced ideas and events, whether the biblical canon is ultimately complementary or ultimately contradictory with itself, whether the miracles are a result of cultural myths or reported realities, etc. rear their pretty heads, one must take note that how one concludes these issues is not a matter of empirical study at all, but of a particular set of beliefs, or disbeliefs, that govern and drive the data to a particular conclusion.

Hence, one needs to understand that modern critical scholarship has often been at war with orthodox Christianity. The data is not at war with it, but the conclusions that are drawn, because of their emanation from contrary ultimate beliefs and presuppositions, are at war with it.

This is noted by John K. Riches in his book, A Century of New Testament Study (Valley Forge, Penn.: Trinity Press International, 1993). Riches critiques E. S. Talbot’s proposal that essentially argued that the boundaries of historical study must understand first that Christ is both in and of time and not in and of time. Hence, although His humanity and the language He uses to convey truth is a product of “natural processes” so to speak, the revelation He brings is not, and the events that transpire as an act of God that breaks into history from outside itself are of course beyond the ability of a natural study of history, based upon what is considered normative in terms of what usually occurs within the natural realm throughout history. Hence, natural methodologies cannot aid us in understanding fully what occurred, and revelation is needed. This is the orthodox Christian position. One must ultimately believe the report. He cannot find out for himself, simply because of his numerous limitations, both in terms of finitude, anachronism, and sin.

Riches then makes an important point concerning the way that most modern scholars think about investigation of the Bible. He states of Talbot’s position, “Whatever the merits or otherwise of such a position, it is clear that it falls short of a thorough-going commitment to keep on searching for historical explanations, even where they are not immediately forthcoming” (Ibid., 7).

One only need understand that by “historical explanations” Riches here refers to “natural explanations.” In other words, naturalism is assumed as the right course in modern critical scholarship (at least of much of the earlier German variety upon which so much of modern scholarship is based now). The idea that it cannot be true that X occurred because of Supernatural explanation Y is dismissed, not by the data itself (as we said before, it cannot be dismissed that way), but in the very presuppositional beliefs held by modern critical scholarship. If X occurred, then natural explanations must have produced it.

In other words, modern critical scholarship already assumes that orthodox Christianity isn’t true. But it doesn’t do this based on anything other than its disbelief that it is true. All of the writing and pontificating and effort displayed is nothing but a filling in the lines with that disbelief and creating a world that is interpreted solely through that grid.

But there is something even worse than this in what is assumed, in that an entire theology and anthropology is adopted by modern critical scholarship that is completely at odds with orthodox Christianity; and yet, it is not adopted because of the facts, but merely assumed without question.

For instance, the Descartian belief that one can reason from himself to all things is seen in Riches’s summary of Lessing’s view concerning biblical scholarship and historical investigation into the New Testament, “Human reason must stand on its own; it must free itself from all inherited beliefs and prejudices, and in exercising its judgment listen only to its own voice, not to the voice of the church or state” (Ibid., 9).

Lessing agreed, of course, that if Christian orthodoxy was true, that divine revelation must in fact override the human ability to discover truth on its own. Hence, as Otto Pfleiderer (a student of F. C. Baur’s) concluded,

If Christianity has its origins in the descent of the second person of the Trinity from heaven to earth, in his becoming man in the womb of a Jewish virgin, in his bodily resurrection after his death on the cross and ascension into heaven; then the origin of Christianity is a complete miracle that escapes all historical [read: “natural”] explanation. For understanding a phenomenon historically means understanding its causal connections with the circumstances obtaining at a particular time and place in human life (Die Enstehung des Christentums, 1).

Indeed, as Riches sums up, “the entry of a superhuman being into this world would be an event without an analogy in our experience and therefore one that we could not in any way comprehend historically [i.e., naturally] (A Century, 7).

Hence, the question becomes, Is Christianity true, or Is Naturalism (along with its views of God, or lack thereof) true? One can only answer by faith. Yet, that faith will determine the way he approaches the data and drives it toward a conclusion.

And what are the distinctions then between modern liberalism, that has largely adopted naturalism as its model of inquiry, versus an historic Christian understanding that seeks to drive the data in the service of the truth revealed rather than in a never ending quest to discover truth through empiricism and analogy within the closed system of naturalism?

Roy A. Harrisville and Walter Sundberg, The Bible in Modern Culture: Theology and Historical-Critical Method from Spinoza to Käsemann (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1995), 28–31, notes that this is nothing more than a clash between orthodox, Augustinian Christianity, and modern Liberalism’s adoption of the heresy/heresies that undermine it. They summarize the conflict by contrasting the two.

Where Augustinianism teaches that human nature is corrupted by the Fall, the Enlightenment asserts boldly the innocence of human nature. Where Augustinianism professes that salvation requires the direct intervention of God to rescue humanity from the sorrows of the world, the Enlightenment declares that the end of existence is the good life on earth. For Augustinianism humanity stands under the sovereignty of God’s election. In the view of the Enlightenment, humanity is capable of directing its own fate. Augustinianism affirms trust in the church and the scriptures; the provide knowledge of the truth for individual life. The Enlightenment counters that truth is obtained by pursuing critical knowledge and obtaining freedom from superstition and oppressive institutions (Ibid., 30–31).

One can see the contrast plainly. If man is fallen, he needs revelation to know with certainty. If he is not fallen, even if he is finite and can err as such, his soul is not in peril, so he has no need to know truth with certainty. But since he is innocent, his mind is not affected by sin and rebellion against God and can come to the truth of a matter through his own unhindered, reasoned investigation. If he is fallen, such is completely impossible. Of course, one must believe or disbelieve the Bible at this point, i.e., the starting point of one’s investigation of the truth. Hence, as I said before, what is presupposed determines what conclusions are acceptable. There is no escaping it. One must either believe or disbelieve first and then continue to reason based upon that belief or disbelief. Hence, all inquiry in biblical scholarship, whether conservative or liberal, is based first on faith and is therefore in service of that faith.

The Scriptures and the historic, orthodox teaching of the Church can be trusted on these crucial worldview matters. The Scriptures and the historic, orthodox teaching of the Church cannot be trusted on these crucial worldview matters. If these can be trusted, man is fallen, in need of salvation, as he is corrupted by a rebellion that drives him further from ultimate truth rather than closer to it, and needs revelation in order for the data to be directed into the right path. If these cannot be trusted, then man is left to himself to make analogies with what he views as normative causation in historical events, as revelation, or really anything supernatural, is not a normative thing, such can never be an acceptable cause of an event or a teaching in the Bible.

Of course, the Bible has always said this, and critical scholarship has mainly pretended otherwise, so that’s still 1-0 in favor of the Bible understanding what is true concerning our situation as humans. Faith is needed. No one can divorce his presuppositions from his methodology of inquiry. Faith determines the outcome. 

So when you hear that the Bible is man made and the various ways scholars argue to that end, what you need to understand about it is that if you choose to trust in the conclusions of modern biblical scholarship, you are always, at all times, trusting only in another person’s faith, not facts. We are down only to belief or disbelief. And that’s the way it should be.

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