Over the past month I have intermittently (see here and here) raised the question as to whether or not "evangelicalism" and academic scholarship are compatible. My conclusion has been a qualified "yes." There are indeed quite significant pitfalls along the path, to which many would-be scholars have succumbed. However, if one manages to avoid the Scylla of rigid and doctrinaire confessionalism, on the one hand, and the Charybdis of a presupposed notion of the "necessary" entailments of biblical "inerrancy," on the other, it can, and demonstrably, has been accomplished.
At issue, of course, is the role of presuppositions in academic study—necessary, to be sure, but problematic if they are allowed, a priori, and whether consciously or not, to delimit interpretive options or even to determine conclusions. It is here, of course, that evangelicals, with their notoriously conservative "bias," are often accused, sometimes legitimately, of failing to abide by the accepted standards of academic rigor. But that begs the question: Are non-evangelicals likewise guilty, more often than is publicly recognized and more often than they are likely to admit, of the same scholarly misconduct?
To be sure, one rarely hears of such a possibility being seriously considered. It is "new" or "fresh" hypotheses, after all, that make academic careers and "radical" ones that catch the public eye. One thinks here of the late Robert Funk's infamous "Jesus Seminar," who democratically came to the conclusion that the real Jesus of history bore little resemblance to the church's "Christ of faith." Rather than claiming to be Israel's anticipated Messiah (let alone "Son of God"), Funk and company (inter alia, Dom Crossan and Burton Mack) painted a portrait of a wandering Cynic who spun ironic aphorisms about the lilies of the field, among other mundane things. For their efforts, the Seminar got what they wanted, viz., publicity, including feature spreads in Time and Newsweek, and instant credibility with a public tired of seemingly ossified and, it was widely thought, outdated Christian tradition. As a result, more "traditionalist" New Testament scholarship had to play on the defensive for a decade, never mind the fact that not only "conservatives" like N. T. Wright but non-evangelicals like Dale Allison and the agnostic Bart Ehrman demonstrated beyond the shadow of a doubt that the Seminar's case had no leg on which to stand. But for many the Seminar represented "cutting edge" scholarship, never mind the fact that they prioritized their "fifth" Gospel, Thomas, for which there is no historical evidence prior to the second century, over the four canonical Gospels; never mind that they took an already hypothetical "document" ("Q," for which in some form there is somewhat compelling deductive evidence), posited a series of stages in its composition, and hypothesized various "Q communities" responsible for its message, none of whom supposedly were interested in Jesus' death and resurrection, and certainly not in any "saving" significance attached to them; and never mind the fact that Crossan invented a supposed "source" out of whole cloth, the so-called "Cross Gospel" (supposedly used as a source by the author of the late-2nd century pseudepigraphical Gospel of Peter), the secondary nature of which is obvious to all but the most inveterate lovers of fantasy. The point is an obvious one: the Jesus Seminar clearly failed to abide by the strictures of academic rigor, and yet became famous for it—one might even say because of that failure. Therein, it would seem, lies the temptation.
The situation is hardly different with regard to the letters of St. Paul. Back in 1985 I wrote my Master's thesis on the so-called "Christ hymn" of Colossians 1:15-20. One thing that struck me then, as it does still, was the reluctance of most scholars to attribute this remarkable text to the originality of Paul himself (assuming the apostle wrote Colossians, which is another matter to be discussed presently). Now, I am well aware that Paul more than once quoted confessional formulae that predated his ministry (or at least his letters). 1 Corinthians 15:3ff. comes to mind, as do shorter passages such as 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 and Romans 4:25. But the 20th century saw the development of a cottage industry of sorts concerning the detection of pre-Pauline formulae and the positing of the apostle's supposed redaction and, at times, correction of these formulae (Romans 3:24-26 is classic in this regard). My point is that the criteria for such judgments are rarely as definitive as the pronouncements made by Pauline scholars would suggest. In his magisterial Manchester Ph.D. thesis, Fuller Seminary Professor Seyoon Kim wrote:
We object ... to the application of wrong criteria in these searches and to the excessive zeal which leads critics to declare this or that passage non-Pauline all too lightly with little sound basis. The excessive zeal is perhaps only too natural in an atmosphere in which the dominant impression seems to be: the more Pauline passages one is able to declare pre-Pauline, the more critical (=the better) exegete one is ... There must be, in the language of v. Campenhausen ..., a Hercules who, taking heed to the plea of M. Hengel ('Christologie und neutestamentliche Christologie', NT und Geschichte, Cullmann FS (1972), pp.43ff.) and others, can burn off the formula-hungry (or pre-Pauline material hungry) Hydra of her ever increasing heads. Otherwise, before long Paul may be portrayed as nothing more than, to use another picture, the archetype of a modern salesman, who went about in the oecume selling the ready-made goods produced by the 'Hellenistic-Jewish' and 'Hellenistic' theologians in their factories back in Syria and was also engaged occasionally in take-over bids for the goods of his rivals (The Origin of Paul's Gospel [WUNT 2.4; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1981] 149-50 n.6 [emphasis mine]).In today's Pauline scholarship it is generally believed that only seven (Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon) of the canonical thirteen letters that bear his name were actually written by Paul, the remaining six emanating in the later first century from a Pauline "school" of his followers. The reasons for such a judgment are complex, involving both linguistic and theological differences between those generally acknowledged and those that are disputed. Now the differences in both language/vocabulary and atmosphere between the major Paulines and the Pastorals (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus) are indeed striking and possibly significant, and I certainly don't condemn evangelicals like Howard Marshall (in his ICC volume) who hesitate to attribute them directly to the Apostle. Nevertheless, in the light of the widespread ancient use of amanuenses and the unique purpose and recipients of those letters, can one be so certain? The case is even thinner for the widely-challenged Ephesians, with regards to which F. F. Bruce hedged his bets when he referred to it as the "Quintessence of Paulinism." Yes, the differences are duly noted, but the difficulties for a Pauline attribution are far from insurmountable, as my late friend and mentor Harold Hoehner demonstrated quite impressively in his Ephesians commentary (Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002] 2-61). Hoehner, a year or so before his untimely death, told me he had written an article he one day hoped to publish entitled "Why Paul Didn't Write Galatians." Now, if there's one letter everybody these days acknowledges as Pauline, it is Galatians. But he argued, tongue-in-cheek, of course, using the same criteria often used to dispute the authenticity of Ephesians, that the Apostle didn't write Galatians either (see page 28 of his commentary for one argument along these lines; unfortunately he died before he could get the article published). The point, of course, is not to argue that Ephesians or the Pastorals must be Pauline because they bear his name (after all, they may not have been). It is rather that the criteria often used are not as definitive as they are often made out to be, and that the reluctance many scholars have to attributing them to Paul has less to do with "objective," rigorous scholarship than it does to acceptance in a guild in which skepticism is de rigeur and considered the mark of a "critical" scholar.
No one was more critical of the mindset of so-called "critical" New Testament scholars than the late Professor Martin Hengel of Tübingen, whom I consider to be the most learned scholar of my lifetime. Hengel was no "evangelical" in the Anglo-American sense—indeed, as a German, how could he be?—though he was a practicing Lutheran. Though "conservative" by the standards of the German academy, he certainly could be critical of Luke's historical accuracy at times and held to the standard attribution of only seven letters to Paul. Yet towards the end of his life he became increasingly vocal about the failures of German New Testament scholarship. Lately I have been rereading his stimulating Paul between Damascus and Antioch, co-authored with his student Anna Maria Schwemer (trans. John Bowden: London: SCM/Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), which is peppered with scathing comments such as the following: "The real danger in the interpretation of Acts (and the Gospels) is no longer an uncritical apologetic but the hypercritical ignorance and arrogance which—often combined with unbridled fantasy—has lost any understanding of living historical reality" (pp. 6-7). And the following:
[Rainer Riesner's Die Frühzeit des Apostels Paulus] should become a standard work of Pauline scholarship; yet I fear that given the spreading inability within our unhappy 'New Testament scholarship' to study ancient sources and use them to argue historically, this learned work will not easily find recognition. In any case it is easier to keep hawking round scholastic clichés and old prejudices pseudo-critically and without closer examination, than to occupy oneself with the varied ancient sources which are often difficult to interpret and remote (p. 15).Much more could be said, of course. This is certainly not to say that non-evangelicals are guilty of such scholarly malfeasance any more than evangelicals are. Indeed, I know firsthand that such is not the case. But it is to say that evangelical presuppositions are no more a barrier to first-rate scholarship than those that often lead more "liberal" scholars to their own proposals and conclusions. Everyone has presuppositions, and such presuppositions are decidedly not a nasty fact to be papered over, but a necessary factor that enables understanding in the first place. What matters is the nature of these presuppositions and the manner in which they are utilized to come to one's conclusions. When one encounters any bit of sensory data, one interprets that data within the storied worldview one presupposes. The question we must ask, however, is whether or not we are willing to allow that data to reconfigure the worldview we presuppose. It is that willingness that entitles a scholar to the label "critical." And, to bring the matter back to my evangelical readership: this is a willingness we must cultivate. Truth, after all, is more important than institutional or confessional affiliation.
Before I close there is one further matter that should be said. Integral to a responsible interpretation of an ancient author (or any author, for that matter), is a sympathetic respect for the author and empathy for his or her recipients in the situation they were facing historically. Here is one area where evangelicals should excel in comparison with their more "radical" colleagues who lack such sympathy. Believing the Bible to be the Word of God entails a respect for the author, both a willingness to listen to and learn from what he wrote and a predisposition to look for coherence in it (i.e., a tendency not to look for superficial "contradictions" between texts or authors and thereby drive a wedge between what they say via false disjunctions). But—this must unfortunately be repeated—such a presupposed belief in the Bible as God's Word does not mean that we must always interpret the text in ways we feel are plain and obvious. That is what scholarly historical and literary analysis are for.