A Way Forward For Fundamentalist Biblical Scholarship
I think it might be beneficial for me to write a follow up on my book review of The World and the Word by Eugene Merrill, Mark Rooker, and Michael Grisanti that was published on The Reviews of Biblical and Early Christian Studies last Friday. Toward the end of the review, I wrote that I felt that, while The World and the Word is a small step forward for fundamentalist biblical scholarship, it is only a small step when it really could have been a much bigger one. What do I mean? What was I wanting out of The World and the Word that I didn’t get? As I mentioned in the review, my perspective is that of one raised among fundamentalist Christians (KJV only, literal historicity of everything, etc.) who no longer self-identifies as a fundamentalist but who wishes fundamentalist biblical scholarship well. In other words, while I disagree with a lot of standard fundamentalist teaching, especially regarding their doctrine of the Bible, I don’t necessarily desire for them to change their teaching so much as for them to articulate their ideas in better and better ways, taking into consideration what critical scholarship has to offer with intellectual honesty and courage rather than with epistemological double standards and a bunker mentality.
So what would this bigger step look like? I’m sure others have already noted these things, so I’m not sure how much of thinking is new, here. I know James Barr, among others, wrote two or three books dealing with the intellectual problems and self-contradictions of fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism, but I haven’t made it to those books just yet. My thoughts are, then, probably at a relatively early stage of development in comparison. But, in my opinion, fundamentalist and conservative evangelical biblical scholarship could vastly improve with a couple of simple changes in attitude that do not automatically necessitate a change in position on much if anything. What I would like to see is:
1) Epistemological honesty
Let’s be honest, everybody. There is very little we can prove either for or against the historicity of much of the Bible. Critical scholars tend to deny the historicity of everything while conservative evangelicals tend to affirm the historicity of everything, and both are making assertions that cannot be backed up with certainty, in my opinion. The thing is, I tend to see more of this honesty in critical scholarship than I do in fundamentalist scholarship. Sure, there are the odd and loud ones who make sure everyone knows that some new discovery disproves this or that, and the popular media is only too happy to publish their book or make a documentary about it. Most biblical scholars I know are much more reticent about making such extravagant claims, and every new BBC documentary elicits more eye-rolling than eager anticipation. Fundamentalists need to start by admitting that the basis of their knowledge cannot be imposed on others as if it were objective evidence. Merrill admitted his confessional bias and the role it played in his approach to biblical studies in the Epilogue of The World and Word, and I applaud this. However, his admission of a degree of subjectivity did not seem to translate into a substantially more generous approach to epistemological issues throughout the book.
Merrill, Rooker, Grisanti, and the fundamentalist world tend to act like if this or that were admitted that calls into question the historicity of some part of the Bible, the entirety of the Christian theological tradition would come crashing down and become worthless. That’s an awfully fragile view of the world, theology, and the Bible. Can I go so far as to say that this is an awfully fragile faith in God. There is this desperate grasping for certainty underlying the fundamentalist insistence on not seriously questioning things. But is God not still God even if I have misunderstood something? Why is it that God is not allowed to be bigger and different than I had thought he was? Because I realize that all of us—Christian, Muslim, atheist, agnostic—are in the same boat when it comes to the lack of absolute, deductive certainty about reality and that all of us begin with nothing more than presuppositions about reality that shape and found the rest of our knowledge, religious or otherwise, because of this I also realize that there is nothing that can ultimately disprove Christianity. You cannot disprove the resurrection of Jesus. Period. It cannot be done. Those who say it can do not understand the nature of proof and knowledge. You can argue that it’s highly unlikely, given the permanence of death in every other instance, but that’s all you can argue. So let’s have a little more courage, fundamentalists, a little more faith that God is bigger than any of us have given him credit for. In The World and the Word, what this would mean, practically, is a fuller and more honest presentation of alternative positions on things like authorship and historicity followed indeed by a vigorous defense of traditional views but without the authors feeling compelled to assert that the so-called “traditional” view is the authoritative “evangelical” position.
Following on to the last point, a more honest and robust faith encourages Christian thinkers to use creativity when engaging new ideas from traditional points of view. Chapter 9 of the book, “The Present State of Old Testament Scholarship,” is one of the low points of the whole book, for me. This is actually for several reasons, one of which is that it is largely redundant with the preceding (and much better) chapter 8. But for the present context, the salient reason I dislike this chapter so much is the utter lack of creativity it revealed with regard to the usefulness of various methods (diachronic AND synchronic, which was stunning to me). Rather than engaging the methods with any depth of understanding, most of the methods were largely dismissed on account of their supposed connection to an anti-supernaturalist worldview derived from the Enlightenment. On a side note, gosh, I wish conservative evangelicals would let go of the Enlightenment argument! At the same time the authors constantly attack the Enlightenment and all it represents, they insist on a view of the Bible that sees it primarily as a repository of factual propositions, which is a way of approaching the Bible that looks a great deal more like the actual Enlightenment than most modern critical scholarship. But I digress. I cannot express how deeply disappointed I was to see fear and polemical reaction win the day in chapter 9 rather than honesty, courage, and creativity.
So that’s a little more about what I had hoped I would find in The World and the Word but didn’t. I fear that what this book functionally represents is a step backwards for fundamentalism. The book presents itself as a fair and honest assessment of critical scholarship that nevertheless reaffirms pretty much everything fundamentalists have always affirmed, and those who use this book will probably take it for granted that this is, in fact, what the book is. So another generation of fundamentalist seminarians, pastors, and laypeople will work under the false impression that their intellectual leaders have dealt with the problems in their theological positions.