Tag Archives: Anti-Supernaturalism

Zeba Crook on the Treatment of Miracles in New Testament Scholarship

The new issue of Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses has an article in it by Zeba Crook (don’t assume that’s a female name, for your own good) entitled “On the Treatment of Miracles in New Testament Scholarship.” The abstract is as follows:

All introductory textbooks to the New Testament have something to say about the miracles and resurrection of Jesus, sometimes implicitly but more often explicitly. Not surprisingly, conservative textbooks take a conservative approach, rejecting outright the ‘naturalism’ that governs other human and natural sciences. Yet even liberal textbooks stop short of assuming a fully naturalistic paradigm. This paper analyses the assumptions that serve as the foundation of both conservative and liberal treatments of the miraculous, and joins others in calling for the academic study of Christian Origins to situate itself more fully within the academic study of religion.

It’s an interesting article, and I think one of the concluding paragraphs is particularly important:

To rely on the supernatural to explain events in history—or anti-naturalism—is an emic perspective because it assumes, against modern (etic) science, the perspective of the subject (ancient people and their texts). To seek a critical naturalist understanding of the origin of a belief (say, the resurrection) is an etic perspective. The study of theology requires an emic approach, the academic study of religion requires an etic approach. To confuse the two, or blur the boundaries between them, will only perpetuate the impasse that is apparent in introductory textbooks to the New Testament.

Responding to James White (Part 1)

Let me begin by apologizing for the length of this post. I can’t imagine ever reading a post of this length on another blog, and so I understand that most of you will simply move on. In defense of the length of this post, this is a complicated issue and I would like to think I respect James White enough as a scholar to respond carefully to his points. I appreciate that he has taken the time to respond to mine, despite the fact that I disagree rather thoroughly with them. I know he’s busy and I know my comments came out of the blue. I’d like to respond in three parts to his comments, one for each of his posts (the first is here, and my original post is here). I’ll start off by saying I’m not responding to White in an effort to prove my religious convictions are right or that his are wrong. I’m simply examining his methodologies. I believe this question is socially and academically important and I don’t believe that White is treating it with enough objectivity or thoroughness.

After a brief introduction to the context of our discussion, White continues on to the only other section in this first post, which is called “The New Mormon Apologists.” White characterizes contemporary Mormon apologetics as edging closer to secularism, and away from its roots, in its prioritization of objectivity and an academic approach. White describes several ways in which he appears to believe modern apologetics is tacitly rejecting the charismatic/prophetic foundation of the LDS religion. There are serious issues with the evidence he marshals in favor of his characterization. To begin with, White provides little evidence. Most of what he brings forth is based only on the weight of his own assertion and falls apart upon closer examination. For instance, White states:

the First Vision was not actually a part of the earliest apologetic of the LDS movement (indeed, evidence shows it to be a later accretion, coming toward the end of Smith’s life, and is not contemporary with the founding of the LDS Church in 1830)

White cannot provide any support for this assertion, mainly because it is a mischaracterization. The four extant accounts of the First Vision come from 1832, 1835, 1838, and 1842. As Joseph Smith died in 1844, two of those are closer to the end of his life than to the foundation of the church, and two are not. While the earliest known written account comes from 1832 (the differences between the accounts is a discussion for another day), an 1831 article from a Palmyra, New York, publication called The Reflector states that Mormon missionaries the previous year (1830) were preaching that Joseph Smith had been personally visited by God. The conclusion that it was unknown at the founding of the church is not supported by the evidence. That it was not widely publicized in written form hardly indicates that it did not exist. The earliest account is found in Smith’s church history, which he claims to have been told to write by God in 1830. A lot of what he wrote over the next few years took place before 1830. White continues:

the movement was still very “restorationist” and hence anti-establishment in its outlook. Almost all charismatic, prophet-led movements of the day emphasized the direct spiritual nature of its leaders so as to give it a foundation to move away from the established churches. Mormonism was no different, but that emphasis remained central even after the relative isolation of the religion in the inter-mountain West. Mormons even to recent times were well known for eschewing “human wisdom” and the authority of “scholarship.”

Nothing is produced to support this. But let’s take a closer look. In what capacity does White mean “anti-establishment”? Does he mean the government? The academy? The ecclesia? The second sentence indicates the ecclesia, but the last sentence indicates the academy. Both easily characterize earliest Christianity, but it’s the second I’d like to address. White continues in that vein by asserting a clear paradigm shift away from anti-intellectualism and toward the academy:

But times have changed. Brigham Young University was founded, and over time, the desire to be viewed as presenting credible “scholarship” within the “academy” has entered into the thinking of the LDS leadership (which is often drawn from the graduates of BYU). I remember clearly conversations with LDS elders nearly thirty years ago now where they emphasized the centrality of direst spiritual witness over against “man’s arguments” and “human scholarship.”

This characterization of the Latter-day Saint movement as moving from anti-intellectualism toward the academy all in an effort to be taken seriously is demonstrably false. First, Latter-day Saints have emphasized the importance of education and human wisdom since the church was first founded, and it has never had anything to do with a desire to be viewed as presenting credible scholarship within the academy. It has always been about developing one’s intellect for the glory of God and the betterment of mankind. D&C 88:118, a text I saw every time I walked up the stairs of the Harold B. Lee Library, states, “Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” One of Brigham Young University’s mottos, again from the D&C, is “The glory of God is intelligence.” The University of the City of Nauvoo, founded in 1841, was, as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, the first municipal university in the United States. Joseph Smith invited instructors from outside Mormonism to come and teach him and other members of the church Greek and Hebrew (with varying degrees of success). Brigham Young encouraged groups of women to travel east to get training as physicians, and he sent a delegation of women to the 1848 Seneca Falls Conference to advocate for women’s rights. The first university west of the Mississippi was the University of Deseret, founded in Utah in 1850. Brigham Young University was founded in 1875. While the church has in the past come out in opposition to positions popularly held by scholars that might conflict with the church’s ideologies or standards, it’s completely inaccurate to state that it “eschews ‘human wisdom’ and the authority of ‘scholarship.’”

Second, James’ conversation with those elders from thirty years ago would be no different today. James’ final sentence here betrays two attempts at equivocation. First, the Latter-day Saint belief that an adequate conviction of the truthfulness of the gospel can only come through a spiritual witness has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the Latter-day Saint position on education and academics in general. It’s one thing to assert that God can only be known through revelation (on this see Matt 16:16–17). It’s entirely another to “eschew ‘human wisdom’ and the authority of ‘scholarship.’” Second, BYU is not an apologetic institution, nor is LDS mission work.  His examples don’t suffice to characterize contemporary apologetics or provide a contrast to early apologetics.

Of course, White is not criticizing LDS apologetics because he believes they eschew human wisdom. James has elsewhere expressed quite vitriolic disdain for the academy and scholarship where it conflicts with his ideologies:

The religion of scientism, with its chief idol in the person of Darwin, has become enshrined in our very governmental policies.

And here:

those who embrace the religion of naturalistic materialism (in its various forms such as humanism, atheism, etc.) have successfully done what many thought impossible: they have installed their own religion as the official religion of the United States government, banishing any and all competing world-views.

One of the results of this new situation is that if one wishes to be thought of as “scientifically astute” or ‘educated” one must bow before the orthodox idol of materialistic thought, primarily expressed in its greatest child, the theory of evolution.

White is accusing Mormonism of secularizing. It’s changing to be more palatable. As can be seen, however, White’s evidence is inaccurate. What shifts are observable are concomitant with the general urbanization of portions of the Midwest and the general progress of science and scholarship. White appears to oppose that progress, however, and that is not surprising given his fundamentalism. It was exactly that progress and the “liberalism” that goes with it that spurred the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy. Perhaps this is why White incorrectly accuses Mormonism of recently falling in with “modernistic skepticism.”

White is right about one thing in relation to this topic, though. One of his key points is that early Latter-day Saints believed the Bible to have been inspired in its autographs (although one might legitimately wonder at what stage of literary development we place the autographs). The criticisms leveled against the Bible by Mormons in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries largely had to do with its transmission after its original composition. I advocate a different view, however, and suggest that even in its original autographs it was susceptible to human error, and is often in conflict with itself. White’s point is that I depart from traditional Mormonism and therein lies the problem. For White, I don’t have faith in Joseph Smith’s original version of Mormonism. The rhetorical point is clear: whatever else I have to say, I’m not even an orthodox Mormon. I don’t even properly represent my own faith. My approach represents a broader trend that is, according to White, “incoherent and self-referentially destructive.”

This might be true if churches and their members were perfect, but they’re not, and this incoherence and self-referential destructiveness is an absolutely inevitable quality of all religions. In fact, without this quality, religions would never survive past the first generation. All religions evolve in response to their environment, even in fundamental issues, and White’s is no exception. All religions also must tolerate a degree of logical tension, or “incoherence,” to use White’s words. Rather than being destructive, these qualities actually help religions stay relevant. Here are a few examples from traditional Christianity.

The Christian scriptures frequently alter the meaning of Hebrew Bible texts in the interest of contemporary needs. For instance, Jesus quotes Psalm 82:6 as a reference to human beings in John 10, but the psalm originally referred exclusively to divine beings. Heb 1:6 cites the Greek translation of Deut 32:43 as a reference to the Messiah, but it originally had only Yahweh as its object, and originally didn’t say “angels of God,” but just “gods.” Hebrews does the same for Ps 45:7, which originally had the king as the object. In Acts 15:17 James cites Amos 9:11–12 in support of taking the gospel to the Gentiles. He understands the text as a reference to a future time when all humanity would be allowed to seek the Lord. His proof text, however, is based on the Septuagint’s misreading of Edom as adam, “human.” The Septuagint also alters other portions of the verse to make it coherent. The New Testament thus bases a doctrinal decision on a misreading of the Hebrew Bible.

These manipulations or misunderstandings of the sense of the scriptures arose simply because they were needed, and they were and continue to be accepted. The only thing that gets in the way of accepting this evolution is the dogma that insists it’s all perfect and can never change, which is a dogma that isn’t even espoused in the Bible itself. Within religions today the normative reading of a text is usually not the original reading, but whatever reading the interpreter can devise that best suits their particular worldview. Adela Yarbro Collins has an excellent discussion of this in Cosmology and Eschatology in Jewish and Christian Apocalypticism (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 1–6. See also the 1993 Vatican publication “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church,” which states that biblical interpretation requires the historical-critical method (and understanding the nature and function of texts in their original contexts) as well as establishing modern applications. That these approaches are different makes it inevitable that the interpretations produced by each will differ and in many places even conflict. That tension is absolutely inevitable in any religion that believes its religious texts remain relevant beyond the generation in which they were composed.

In addition, fundamental doctrines of White’s Christianity did not exist in the first century church. For instance, the Trinity represents a doctrinal innovation that would have been an utterly foreign concept to the first Christians. The first time we see a concern for a metaphysical grasp of what it means to be the Son of God happens to coincide with the assimilation of the Greek worldview, and the early grasp of that meaning was quite distinct from the Trinitarian grasp. John 1:1 describes Christ as divine in all the same ways that God is divine. It does not at all equate them, though. Justin Martyr in his Dialogue with Trypho describes Christ as “another God,” and a distinct being from God the Father. Their identification with each other is subordinate to the assertion of a single divine “being,” which derives from the Greek doctrine of God as absolutely superlative, and thus indivisible. The first time Christ was conceived of as ontologically identified with God happens to coincide with the description of his relationship with God in terms of emanation. Even with Tertullian (who first expressed the idea of a “trinity”) there is subordinationism, and that seemed to suit people just fine for quite some time. We see, then, a lengthy development during which time each new generation had to renegotiate its beliefs between past traditions and present circumstances and expediencies. All religions experience this. In early Christianity’s merging with the Greco-Roman intelligentsia, then, we’re left with quite serious tension in ideas like the hypostatic union, which is logically impossible but is the only way to assert what the Chalcedonians wanted to assert.

Ideologies also change as we increase in knowledge. I don’t think it’s a bad thing for a church to recognize that our understanding of the Bible will develop as we learn more and more about the universe and about the cultures that produced the biblical text. I do think, however, that it’s a problem to insist that the assumptions we brought to the text centuries years ago need to be asserted over and against the light that has more recently been shined on the past and on our world. I can’t imagine White opposes this idea on principle. I doubt he would agree with early biblical authors that a solid dome separates the waters of heaven from the earth, that the earth was flat, or that the sun orbited around the earth. Sure, he can say that to the author of Joshua 10 the halting of the earth’s orbit would look like the sun was holding still, but that doesn’t change the fact that the biblical text is based on an erroneous worldview and insists God commanded the sun to hold still (see also Eccl 1:5). Unless he actually believes the sun orbits the earth and that there’s a solid dome holding up the waters of heaven, he does not believe the Bible. He can’t. Science has conclusively proven it wrong in those instances.

Does this indicate some sinister “change” within Christianity as a whole? Has it failed to fend off the onslaught of modernistic skepticism? Has it turned to attacking its scriptural foundation? No, it has just recognized that the biblical authors were human and that we are too, and we’re constantly learning new things about our world and the world of the Bible. No church gets to operate outside of that. To sum up this train of thought, I don’t think it particularly insightful or objective to chide the church for developing intellectually along with the rest of humanity. Sure, Joseph Smith claimed to be inspired, and he had some pretty crazy ideas, but the Bible’s got some crazy ideas in it too, and White obviously considers it inspired. The notion of accommodation, found in Calvinism and most contemporary Evangelicalism presupposes the same relativism, so I see no reason why White would oppose it.

So what is one to do with the parts that are obviously wrong, and where do you draw the line between letting science and the academy inform our reading of the Bible and putting our foot down and saying the biblical text has to take priority? I am always looking for honest and intelligent answers to these questions, and not in the interest of rhetoric, but in the interest of dialogue. Unfortunately, I rarely find them. Perhaps White can answer where so many others have refused.

White continues:

Be that as it may, the point is this: the attack upon the Bible was intimately connected with a spiritual claim to the superiority of LDS Scriptures and the prophethood of Joseph Smith, all of which placed Mormonism very much in the charismatic/prophetic tradition, but surely not in the realm of skepticism and naturalistic materialism. Mormonism was not claiming to speak from the midst of “the academy.” It spoke, back then, with a singular voice, and claimed a singular authority.

Latter-day Saint prophets and apostles continue to claim that singular authority. I do not. I’m not a prophet. White next begins to dig in with his attempt to paint me as a heterodox Mormon as he appeals to some more standards of Mormon countercultism. He asks if I’ll say the same thing about the Bible as I do about the Book of Mormon (for the most part, yes). He asks about the sources of my scholarship:

Does the broad world of scholarship view the Book of Mormon as an ancient record, accurately representing the inhabitants of Meso-America? How about the Book of Abraham? Does the same realm of scholarship, academia, intellect, etc., from which he draws his attacks upon the Bible spare the Book of Abraham?

White’s purpose here is to insist that I employ a double standard when it comes to my analysis of the biblical text. I am happy to incorporate methodologies I’ve drawn from the world of scholarship in my analysis of the biblical text, but not in my analysis of unique LDS scriptures. He questions the broader academic field in order to show that if I were to apply the same methodologies to LDS scriptures I would have to reject them, as does the broader academic world. There are problems with this assumption, though. The broad world of scholarship has, for the most part, not analyzed the Book of Mormon or the Book of Abraham. Very few scholars have ever interacted with either in a strictly academic capacity, and advocating for their historicity would be nothing less than advocating for Joseph Smith’s inspiration. In spite of that, many scholars (for instance, James Charlesworth, David Winston, David Noel Freedman, Edmond La B. Cherbonnier, and Jacob Neusner) have commented that there are striking affinities between ancient Judaism and Christianity and LDS ideologies found in the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham. I’m not going to spend time trying to insist that Mormonism has been academically exonerated, though. No religion is. They are all based on approaches to questions of truth that fundamentally conflict with academic methodologies. Those methodologies exist for a very good reason, though, and their flippant rejection evinces misunderstanding more than anything else.

Whites continues:

While Mormonism continues to speak often of latter-day revelation, there is just one little problem: we don’t see any of it. Oh, general and vague discussions of God’s “leadership” of the church are common, but let’s face it: the days of Joseph Smith are past. Gone are the days of almost daily revelations having to do with sending this person on a mission here, this matter of the church there. The charismatic period is gone, and if the current prophet were to come out tomorrow and say, “Thus sayeth the Lord,” and give some new revelation that he would expect to be published in the next edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, the LDS church would reel under the implications.

This manifests a rather uninformed characterization of contemporary Mormonism. The LDS church does still assert almost daily revelations when it comes to where people will be sent on missions (the process has recently been talked about in General Conference) and other matters of church administration. The charismatic period is gone, but that hardly undermines any of the church’s claims. For that to happen, White would have to insist that charismatic prophecy cannot cease in order for the religion it founds to remain viable. Of course, this would mean Christianity ended for White with the de facto closing of the canon and the putative end of prophecy in the first century CE. White would likely insist that the Bible prescribes it, and that it was God’s design, but how would he respond if a Latter-day Saint similarly points out that Mormons believe each dispensation is opened by charismatic and revolutionary prophecy that is followed by more steady maintenance? I imagine he would (1) try to insist that Mormons don’t believe that, (2) insist either that that’s just a modern rationalization (which is equally applicable to his explanation), or (3) that Mormonism is false anyway and so it doesn’t matter. I’m perfectly happy to be wrong, though.

Next White states:

You see, the only forms of scholarship that Mormonism can draw from to reinforce its own self-identity, as seen in McClellan’s article, are those that denigrate the clarity and perspicuity of biblical revelation.

I disagree that it is scholarship that “denigrates the clarity and perspicuity of biblical revelation”; I would say that it is scholarship that does not presuppose and then dogmatically shield it in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The Bible as a whole simply does not represent a clear and perspicuous revelation when viewed objectively. One must reject clear and simple conclusions in favor of unfounded assumptions in order to insist on a univocal or inerrant reading of the Bible.

For example, Sennacherib’s invasion is an historical event that is corroborated by Assyrian sources, but there are three different versions of Hezekiah’s reaction to it in 2 Kings.  The shortest, found in 2 Kgs 18:13–16, states that Hezekiah immediately paid Sennacherib his tribute when he demanded it, completely emptying his treasury and stripping precious metals from the architecture to find the necessary funds. The next account begins in v. 17 and has Rabshakeh and his colleagues come to accuse Hezekiah of rebelling. (It should be pointed out that this second account uses a different spelling of Hezekiah’s name from the first account.) That account ends at 2 Kgs 19:9a and also includes vv. 36–37. The third account extends from 2 Kgs 19:9b–35, and repeats the story of Sennacherib’s message to Hezekiah, only this time the messengers are nameless and the communication is private. Portions of the speech are repeated verbatim, though. In this last account Hezekiah offers his own intercessory prayer and Isaiah comes to deliver the response. In the second account, though, it is Isaiah who offers the prayer and the response. The second account appeals to Deuteronomistic vernacular and avoids all mention of angels (a staple of early Deuteronomistic literature), while the third account appeals heavily to Isaianic traditions and attributes Sennacherib’s failure to angelic intervention. Thus we have three accounts: in the first Hezekiah simply abandons his alliance with Egypt and pays Sennacherib off; in the second he refuses to pay and Sennacherib abandons his campaign because of intrigue elsewhere; in the third Hezekiah refuses to pay and Sennacherib’s army is devastated by divine intervention. Shortly afterward when a Babylonian envoy visits Jerusalem, Hezekiah shows him a treasury full of riches. The univocality of the Bible is here flatly precluded.

White’s rhetoric in his concluding paragraph begins to cross the line into thinly veiled insults:

It is impossible to hold together the world of Joseph Smith, with his personal revelations and seer stones and ancient Nephite civilizations and angelic visitations and Masonic ordinances and polygamy, and the high-brow academic world that, evidently, represents the very celestial kingdom for the staff of BYU. So deep is the desire for fundamental acceptance in “the guild” of scholarship that BYU’s leading scholars are willing to inject into the bloodstream of the LDS Church a concoction whose final results only the future can possibly reveal.

Of course, these things are only impossible if one presupposes they’re untrue, either because that person rejects the supernatural or only accept the supernatural when it occurs in the Bible. If one allows for the supernatural (and White refers in his post to the “ever-corrosive anti-supernaturalism of the modern academy”) then these things are no more impossible than a talking donkey, a sea that splits in half, a flying man, or people being raised from the dead. This manifests a double standard on White’s part. His rejection of those claims is based simply on the fact that they took place outside of the Bible. The historical evidence is no more supportive of a divided sea or Adam and Eve than of ancient Nephite civilizations. I would point out, in defense of the academy, that what White calls “anti-supernaturalism” is a methodological necessity, whether or not one believes in prophecy. Without it, no ex eventu prophecy could ever be detected, and the entire academic endeavor would be undermined.

The heavy handed rhetoric aimed at the BYU faculty is also unnecessary, irrespective of the disrespect White may insist has been aimed at him in the past by BYU professors. In an article from several years ago White described the challenge before LDS apologists as “impossible,” and used much of the same rhetoric. Carl Mosser and Paul Owen, a pair of Evangelical scholars who have for the last decade tried to promote a more respectful and objective dialogue with LDS apologists, published a paper that touched on the tendentiousness of the Evangelical countercult movement and had this to say about White’s article:

The article by James White, “Of Cities and Swords: The Impossible Task of Mormon Apologetics,” was an attempt to introduce evangelicals to LDS apologetics, to the work of FARMS, and, in the process, critique the group. This article failed on all three points. White’s article does not mention a single example of the literature we have presented in this paper. He does not accurately describe the work of FARMS, or of LDS scholarship in general. He gives his readers the mistaken impression that their research is not respected in the broader academic community. We believe that we have demonstrated that this is simply not the case. His attempted critique picks out two of the weakest examples. Not only does he pick weak examples, he does not give even these an adequate critique. This is nothing more than “straw man” argumentation.

White’s final sentence is quite long, and attempts to jam in as much rhetoric as possible:

Unless something highly unusual takes place, BYU will remain the premier institution of LDS education, and as long as it continues inculcating the same kind of thinking into its students that is seen in the current crop of LDS apologists, from Peterson through Hamblin now to McClellan, the tension will continue to mount, much like the dangerous situation at Fukushima: the pressure that exists between continuing to affirm the prophethood of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, along with all their pre-critical, a-historical theological documents and beliefs, and the ever-corrosive anti-supernaturalism of the modern academy together with its rejection of objective truth and naturalistic biases, will eventually rupture any containment structure the aging General Authorities in Salt Lake City can erect.

The pressure to which White refers is, as has been shown, an artificial one constructed primarily upon a series of double standards, an uninformed view of the nature and function of biblical criticism, and the overlay of White’s own fundamentalism on a religious tradition that is not so shortsighted. We will see if White’s engagement of my actual argument rises above his first post’s rhetoric and methodological shortcomings.