Monday, August 26, 2013

Are Evangelicalism and Rigorous Scholarship Mutually Exclusive (Part 1)?

Over the past couple of weeks I have been trying to catch up on some blog reading while working an inconvenient shift disadvantageous to writing or sustained thinking. This weekend I ran across a post written in July by Pete Enns entitled "James Barr on Evangelical Biblical Scholarship." Barr, of course, was a famous Old Testament scholar and linguist from Scotland, whose first major work, The Semantics of Biblical Language, published in 1961, has influenced generations of biblical scholars with its devastating expose of the manifold linguistic fallacies that served as the stock-in-trade for many a minister or Bible teacher. In his later academic career he served as the replacement Doctor-father of my own friend and teacher, Buist Fanning, at Oxford after the untimely demise of G. B. Caird. Barr also was no friend of fundamentalism ... or of an evangelicalism which, despite its smoothing of fundamentalism's hard edges, he nevertheless saw as a kindlier, more learned variant of the same thing.

I first came across the second edition of Barr's famous Fundamentalism (1981) in the early years of my own graduate theological education at a very conservative American seminary. At the time I was taken aback by what I considered the stridency of his views. Over the years, however, I have come to see insight in many of his accusations—evangelical "gains" in scholarly quality balanced by an intensification of (neo-) fundamentalist obscurantism, the prevalence of academic witch hunts in evangelical schools, undue influence of pseudo-intellectual gurus, an undifferentiated emphasis on the role of presuppositions, an unseemly predilection for playing power games—despite his penchant for what I view as uncharitable over-generalization in those very accusations.

For his part, Enns's post contributes to a prominent thread in his Patheos blog, one with obvious ties to his own experience of banishment from a very conservative and confessional seminary. Representative of these is his post from 3 January of this year, entitled "Can Evangelical Colleges and Seminaries Be Truly Academic Institutions?" There Enns asks a trenchant question: "Can an institution claim to be fundamentally academic while at the same time centered on defending certain positions that are largely, if not wholly, out of sync with generations of academic discourse outside of evangelical boundaries? (emphasis his)" Later he asks another question whose applicability to many an "evangelical" institution with which I have been associated is transparently a propos: "At what point, if ever, would it show more integrity for a school to say the following: “Our center of gravity is not academic integrity or engagement but the defense of our theology by either mining the academic discourse of biblical scholarship where useful or condemning it where harmful. We do not see ourselves as primarily an academic body but an ecclesial one.” Should such institutions publicly acknowledge that they are centers of theological apologetics and therefore not places of academic training? (emphasis his).

The problems, as I see them, are basically two, and are interrelated. First, how can an evangelical scholar or institution committed to biblical "inerrancy" and/or an ecclesial confession claim to operate within an environment committed to free inquiry (i.e., the fundamental environmental condition of academic investigation)? Do not such prior commitments make any supposed "academic" or "scholarly" investigations suspect in that they greatly delimit the potential results of the given inquiries? How is one to suppose the conclusions of such scholars are not motivated more by prior religious commitments than they are to the preponderance of the relevant evidence?

Second, are the "presuppositions" of evangelical and non-evangelical scholars both to be granted equal legitimacy? In other words, are the "unorthodox" conclusions of many non-evangelicals due simply to the problematic assumptions they bring to the inquiry a priori? Are all presuppositions to be granted equal respect, or must the scholar provide at least some methodological ground for those he or she brings to the table? This is an issue brought forward by another thoughtful post published earlier this month by Joseph Kelly entitled "Is Evangelical Scholarship Academically Rigorous?" To Kelly, evangelical scholars too often play the presupposition trump card when they should rather have applied more methodological rigor to their investigations. No doubt he is right on that score.

All who know me—indeed, all who simply read the "about me" on my blog—know that I am committed both to a theological and a critical interpretative approach to Scripture. Yet I am acutely and existentially aware of the difficulties associated with this dual task, not least for professional scholars whose scholarly views lead to conflict and ultimate severance of relationship with the conservative institutions who employed them. My answer to the question I posed in this post's title is a qualified "yes." But, as I hope to show, the matter is not a simple one. Presuppositions, personal temperaments, and professional ambitions all play a role in the matter and muddy the waters considerably. No one—not conservatives or "evangelicals," not "liberals" or "progressives"—are immune from these factors and pressures, and thus none can really claim the moral high ground on the subject.

What do you think about this? Can evangelicals legitimately claim to do rigorous academic scholarship?

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