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Friday, February 24, 2006

More on faith based scholarship

This is a kind of response to Danny Zacharias (and not in complete disagreement I might add) at Deinde sparked off by the Michael Fox post on SBL forum and kind of further thoughts on the subject.

Danny write:
1) I think at bottom this discussion is arguing over which presuppositions are better. Faith-based scholarship (evangelical scholars don't just do study) roots its presuppositions in the Christian faith while secular scholarship roots its presuppositions in modernity and enlightenment thinking. I got the distinct impression in Fox's essay that, while he was aware of presuppositions, faith-based scholarship is seen as entrenched in them while secular scholarship is not- that is simply hogwash.

I'm not sure if this is entirely fair. But maybe it is so just as a general defence of certain secular approaches let me offer this. No secularist I know thinks they are working without presuppositions but I heard plenty of people claim they act in such a way. What certain secular minded scholars worry about (and I'm not saying this is necessarily right or wrong) is that certain faith based studies want an answer that they will get whatever and will never change their minds on the issue. Is that scholarship? Is scholarship all about being prepared to change views in light of evidence? Shouldn't it be possible to come to a conclusion about an ancient piece of evidence which runs clear contrary to your own personal political or religious beliefs? Just some thoughts really, not a definitive opinion and to be fair that problem is not just restricted to faith based approaches.

Danny wrote:
2) Practicing faith-based scholarship does not negate collegiality and exclude the ability to learn from people of different presuppositions, and the same should be said of secular scholars. Sometimes we need to get off of our high horse and recognize that anyone, regardless of presuppositions, can bring valuable insights to the discussion.

No, it doesn't have to and yes we can all learn from one another. But what happens when a faith based group dominates the subject? How can they possibly learn or even want to learn from a minority of secularists who will come to some very different conclusions. Example: what other academic discipline discusses whether it is valid to analyse whether the virgin birth happened or not, whether a virgin birth happened or not, or whether it should be taken in a more spiritual sense? We all know why such discussions happen and I think it is safe to assume that they would not happen in a coonventional history dept if they stumbled across similar kinds of beliefs some other place some other time. the ideals in dialogue are fine but they cannot be put into full practice as the discipline stands.

Danny wrote:
4) Who exactly are we talking about here? Are we talking about Pat Robertson, Charles Colson, Rick Warren, etc? Or are we talking about Luke Timothy Johnson, Michael Bird, Scot McKnight, I. Howard Marshall, Stanley Porter, (and the list can go on and on and on)? I recognize scholarship from people's of faith everywhere, and to be frank I think the best biblical scholarship is coming from a "faith-base". If faith-based scholarship is really a problem- then it is more of a pandemic. We are everywhere and -surprise surprise- we can do critical scholarship.

Well for a start I have to strongly disagree with the idea of the best scholarship coming from a faith base. I know this is to some degree subjective but for me at least most - not all- comes from non-conventional perspectives or those where I have no idea about the perspective. But even if we agree that the best stuff comes from a faith perspective that is hardly surprising if the discipline is dominated by Christians.

Danny wrote:
5) Fox talks about faith-based scholars and how they work towards a pre-determined conclusion. This is an excellent point- one that every scholar constantly needs to watch in their own assessment of their work. But are secular scholars really any different? I've read many a secular historical Jesus scholar who seemed quite intent on a pre-determined goal. Pre-determined conclusions are rooted in presuppositions, and since everyone has those (secular and religious alike) then pre-determined conclusions are a problem that every scholar faces. (Fox's assertion that scholarship is based on evidence-which I agree with- is itself a pre-determined conclusion).

This is an important point. I think here there is a problem for the more scripturally conservative rather than faith in general. For example, what is the point of doing critical study if you know that everything in the gospels is going to be 100% accurate, including miracles? I would go so far as to say that is bordering on the impossible for the historian on analogy with other ancient material. Why not have the narrative Jesus and work from there? There are very few secular historical Jesus works to analyse this problem but if we take the discipline of history as an analogy if there were more and more secularists (and yes with their won presuppositions) there would be views of the historical Jesus which directly contradict their own views and rightly so because Jesus lived in a very different culture with a very different worldview. Incidentally, as I said in the comments on an earlier post, I don't consider the Jesus Seminar to be secular. Individuals might be but as a whole I think it is fair to say that it reflects something like liberal Christianity. Funk and Crossan have both expressed themselves in such terms.

Danny wrote:
6) On a more basic human level, I simply despise the continual message that I need to live a fragmented life. I act and think one way at church, act and think one way in academia, and live differently in the real world. Our world is fragmented, people are fragmented and breaking apart from it. This kind of supposed opposition between faith and academic pursuits is the continuation of this kind of fragmented thinking. I try and make my faith part of everything I do- how I raise my children, how I throw out my trash, how I handle my money, how I blog, how I research and write academic papers. Faith certainly has its place- but not just in churches, synagogues, and religious schools, as Fox asserts. Faith finds itself in a community and an individual. That faith ought to go with that person wherever their feet and minds should take them.

Fair enough. My problem is when it dominates a discipline.

One of the interesting things about this whole debate is the impression that the religious and religious conservatives are under attack. Of coure in one sense they are. But let's also remember that these people dominate the discipline not only in arguments with a more or less religious perspective but in numbers also. So why worry...

Update: Ok, there's a good possibility I'll miss someone out because the debate has been running across the blogs. Loren Rosson has made comments which I would endorse. Alan Bandy has some disagreements but some agreements too. More from Danny at Deinde here. From the HB/OT side there is Joe Cathey edging towards Danny's view. Tyler Williams has a very useful detailed discussion here. Have I missed anyone out? Anyway, whisper it but for all the differences there is almost a consensus on the blogs concerning this issue.


Blogger J. B. Hood said...


Thanks for the comments here. I can understand the "discipline domination" problem. How would you propose getting more 'secular' people interested?

Perhaps a big part of the problem is lack of interest by the disinterested? This is also a problem in history more generally. Few people without an axe to grind (David Irving on one end, then neo-cons, all the way to neo-Marxists on the other) go into "history" as a discipline. It's much more interesting, honestly, if you have a vested interest in classism, colonialism, unfettered wealth as an engine for prosperity, or whatever.

Don't forget (how could any of us), it ain't a lucrative field!

Again, though, this is not what Fox is saying at all, as I read him.

February 24, 2006

Blogger Mowens said...

I think J.B. raises a good point. From you perspective, would you agree that any secularist who devotes his/her life to the academic study of the NT has some form of an agenda? BTW, I know this question is a little bit personal. I really don't intend any offense by it. I'm just curious about what might motivate a secularist to study the NT.


February 25, 2006

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm no more suprised at the dominance of faith-based study of the OT/NT and associated discipines than I am that of the Koran. The are books for those of faith after all.

February 25, 2006

Anonymous Anonymous said...

James (is it okay if I call you James?),

I have appreciated your discussion in this matter- even at points we disagree you are very respectful and collegial in your discussions.

You mentioned the virgin birth as an example of a dominating presupposition that has steered faith-based scholars. You said that non other discipline would even consider discussing it- is this not an example of secular presupposition as well? That secularists would not even entertain the notion seems to show that the secular presupposition is even more controlling than faith-based presuppositions- I've read faith-based authors question the birth narratives and the virgin birth (John Meier comes to mind), I can't say I've read a secular scholar entertain the virgin birth.

In this matter I'm reminded of Marcus Borg's comments (can't remember where) that in the scope of history, secularists are the oddity in not entertaining notions of the miraculous- it has been a staple of human societies it seems.

I have recognized something amidst these discussions- there is a real danger of an extreme attitude that can be harmful to the discipline. I use myself as an example: After I read your "dangerous idea" of NT studies needing to become secular, I reacted with the extreme statement of NT studies needing to become an entirely-faith based discipline. I will not speak on your behalf, but my statement was too extreme. We need NT scholars of many stripes and we need to learn from one another. I suspect that you offered your position because of the "dominance" of faith-based scholars in NT studies. Nonetheless, an extreme statement on either end is not the answer (so I retract my statement :) somewhere in the middle is about right.

Danny Zacharias

February 27, 2006

Blogger James Crossley said...

Jason: not an easy thing to get secularists in but not impossible. There is enough general interest in the ancient world which could easily be extended to Christian origins with the right 'marketing'. Also there has also been a historic interest from Marxists and there still is. This could be another interesting route. That's why I am in favour of interest groups actually and why I ultimately disagree with Fox.

mowens, I guess that kind of answers your question too. I do think secularists have their own agendas and own historical and personal make-up. More and more secularists with their agendas would bring new questions and new discussions which can be no bad thing.

What might motivate a secularist? A good question. Well my own view is that I want to do all kinds of causal things with Christian origins as opposed to 'disprove it' or anything like that (I have absolutely no interest in that). I can't obviously speak for other but I can for myself obviously I actually got into this subject by accident when I left work (that still makes me smile) to go to college. I was thinkning of a final subject to do when someone I gave a lift home said why not Religious Studies and so I thought that was a good idea, got hooked, and here I am. That might tie in with my reply to Jason in that there are people who would be interested. If only they knew...!

Anon: I was taught the Quran and Islamic studies by a non-Muslim and there are significantly higher numbers of non-Muslims teaching Islam and Quranic studies in the universities.

Danny: call me what you want! Also sorry for not leaving comments on your site but I always get confused on Deinde's comments bit (my fault). Ultimately I agree with your conclusions. I was only playing devil's advocate on the dangerous question thing and I certainly don't believe that the discipline should become secular approach only. It wouldn't make any sense anyway because those participants (religious or not) practising a secular approach would not be removed from their social contexts anyway.

On the virgin birth, Luedemann has written on it. Now he's an easy target and it is probably true that few secularists have written on it. I only wrote on the resurrection through a series of accidents (people not available etc) otherwise I may never have touched the subject for years if at all. It is difficult to know if anything can be read into this without a high enough number of visible secular types in the field.

Borg may be right but people beleived a lot of things they don't now (flat earth would be the obvious) so I'm not sure how much weight it holds. But you are right and that no other discipline would entertain such ideas but I think that is something for believing scholars to think about and not somethign they must adopt.

Yet, ultimately, danny, I quite agree with your final statement. The discipline like all disciplies needs to be open to all and excluding one group is just scholarly totalitarianism.

February 27, 2006

Blogger Alan S. Bandy said...


Thanks for the interesting discussions. I see the value of your perspective, but still believe that a faith based perspective produces very valid scholarship.
Thanks for leaving your mark on my blog.

February 27, 2006

Blogger J. B. Hood said...

Thanks James, that's a good strategy.

BTW new SBL review, http://www.bookreviews.org/bookdetail.asp?TitleId=4938 is relevant.

February 27, 2006

Blogger Mowens said...

James wrote:
"More and more secularists with their agendas would bring new questions and new discussions which can be no bad thing."

Very well said. I think part of the problem is an unwillingness to recognize that much more research needs to be done on the NT (to say nothing about the OT!). I fully believe that having lots of voices in the discussion (by and large) helps greatly. Furthermore, I tend to learn the most as I interact with others who look at the NT from a different perspective. Thanks for your response. Blessings.


February 27, 2006

Blogger James Crossley said...

Well this has all been conducted in a friendly way! I think this shows that there is great potential for future dialogue on this subject without wanting either side banned. I think half the problem in these kinds of debates normally is the lack of communication on both sides. Perhaps blogging can lead the way!?!

Jason: I have read Jacques Berlierblau book (and I'm also reviewing it as it happens). He raises some of the kinds of issues we've been discussing on the blogs and while he does take an approach whereby a secularist could critique the message of the Bible it is far from polemical and hostile. I know he would be open to the style of debate we've had here even though some of the questions he asks are different from mine.

February 28, 2006

Blogger P J Williams said...

The advantage of explicit faith-based scholarship is that it is not sneakily pretending to be something that it isn't. It lays its presuppositions bare. Faith-based scholars often have deep convictions, which may mean that they will never change their fundamental beliefs (although this is not always the case). However, my impression is that there is not any more openmindedness amongst scholars who see themselves as secular.

The best thing we can do is to interact on our common ground and I'm sure that we will see two-way movement.

I view secularism as diverse, but still with some elements of faith. It has provided fertile soil for some fairly inaccurate impressions to grow up about things like previous belief in a flat earth, Galileo, the Wilberforce and Huxley debate, religion and wars, and missionaries and colonialism. The list could go on.

For the flat earth see:

J.B. Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians (London, 1991).

Faith-based and secular scholarship do provide something of a corrective to each other. They tend to be stronger due to the existence of the other.

March 03, 2006

Anonymous Christopher Shell said...

You are right that the best scholarship is unclassifiable as to 'party line'.

After all, how likely is it that, in a book or article where conclusions are drawn and perspectives taken on numerous matters, a truly honest scholar would just so happen to come, on every one of these matters, to a conclusion that matched a particular ideology, e.g. liberal, conservative, maximal conservative, maverick or deliberately original?

You can tell the good and honest scholars by the fact that the tentative and provisional conclusions they come to are scattered between these supposed camps.

(Unless, of course, this is a deliberate tactic designed to make others think they are honest scholars.)

However, much depends on the question that is being asked in the first place. If we are asking 'What is the most that can be said with certainty about X?', minimalist or liberal conclusions are inevitable. If we are asking 'What is the common-sense view of X, or the view least likely to be way off-beam', then conservative conclusions are likeliest.

March 14, 2006


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