Faith Based Bibelwissenschaft?

I was read a Michael V. Fox SBL Forum article (via Jim West), entitled “Bible Scholarship and Faith Based Study: My View,” that I think makes a very important point. The thesis of the article is basically that Bible scholarship needs to operate independent of faith-based study:

Faith-based study of the Bible certainly has its place—in synagogues, churches, and religious schools, where the Bible (and whatever other religious material one gives allegiance to) serves as a normative basis of moral inspiration or spiritual guidance. This kind of study is certainly important, but it is not scholarship—by which I mean Wissenschaft, a term lacking in English that can apply to the humanities as well as the hard sciences, even if the modes and possibilities of verification in each are very different. (It would be strange, I think, to speak of a “faith-based Wissenschaft.”)

My opinion on this topic has always been that biblical scholarship is going to be most efficient and effective if scholars are all operating under the same methodological standards, and if everyone has access to the same unprivileged evidence. Faith-based research often relies upon a number of presupposed axioms that are not shared by the academy at large, and this is whence a large number of conflicts derive. Dr. Fox states,

evidence must be accessible and meaningful apart from the unexaminable axioms, and it must not be merely generated by its own premises. (It is not evidence in favor of the Quran’s divine origin that millions of people believe it deeply, nor is it evidence of its inerrancy that the it proclaims itself to be “the Scripture whereof there is no doubt.”) To be sure, everyone has presuppositions and premises, but these are not inviolable. Indeed, it is the role of education to teach students how to recognize and test their premises and, when necessary, to reject them.

A post at Debunking Christianity quotes Harvard’s Jon Levenson (in The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son) as defining critical scholars as those who “are prepared to interpret the text against their own preferences and tradition, in the interest of intellectual honesty.”

A great many Bible scholars are adherents to religious faiths and yet their scholarship remains free from dogmatic axioms.  I like to think that I am one of them, but an experience at a regional SBL in Denver in 2008 has me convinced that it will often be doubted, especially among other believing scholars. A friend and I (both undergrads at BYU) were presenting on the textual history of Hermas and the dating of 2 Maccabees, respectively (my friend’s paper won the Best Student Paper award, by the way). Another scholar who sat through both our papers asked questions after each that amounted to “so what does this have to do with Mormonism?” I didn’t know how to respond to that, but it seems to me that suspicion is carried around by many academics.

Decoupling faith-based research from biblical scholarship might overcome some of these ideosyncracies, but I sure would miss the exposure to so many different religious traditions at SBL every year. I’m not yet integrated enough into this animal that is biblical scholarship to make absolute statements about what needs to happen in the field, but  I appreciate Michael’s comments and hope to see further discussion in the future.



2 responses to “Faith Based Bibelwissenschaft?

  • Steven B

    So, I’m curious whether the suspicion academics have about Mormon scholars is simply the result of Mormonism having an expanded canon. Or is it due to a pattern in the past for Mormon scholars to be biased by faith-based presuppositions?

  • Daniel O. McClellan

    Thanks for the comments, Steven. I think there are always going to be people harboring similar suspicions about scholars of other religious traditions, and I don’t believe any tradition is entirely devoid of scholars who rely on more faith-based research. In this case, however, I think the fact that some tend to view Mormonism as a little more “other” than most Christian traditions contributes more to that suspicion than its faith-based presuppositions (and an open canon is not the only concern). After all, that suspicion is not uncommonly derived itself from faith-based presuppositions.

    The point of the story, though, wasn’t to point to Mormonism as a singular object of this suspicion, but to show what effects faith-based study has had on the academy. The proliferation of faith-based research makes it easier for many to criticize other scholars and their scholarship based on the assumption (justified or otherwise) that their methodologies are tainted by dogmatism. My friend and I were not criticized for any faults in our scholarship, but because the individual assumed we just had to be hawking Mormonism in some way or another, and so our methodologies were suspect.

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