How to benefit from academic scholarship about the Bible, without being gullible
I’ve got a mixed attitude towards experts.
On the one hand, like many of us, there are a few (a very few) arenas of life in which I actually know a thing or two—areas in which, compared to most of the population, I suppose I’m a minor expert. When a member of the mob starts blathering on about this subject as if they know what they’re talking about, I tend to look down my patrician nose at them and think that they really should defer to those who, you know, actually understand this subject.
I’m sure it’s how school teachers feel when they sit across the desk on parent-teacher night, and have to endure the strongly held opinions of parents as to how their child should be educated—as if decades of academic study and professional experience as a teacher account for nothing.
Then again, I don’t trust the experts, because I don’t trust myself. I know how staggeringly wrong I can get it, even in subjects or situations where I’m well equipped to get it right.
This mixed attitude towards expertise and academia is reflected in our wider society. When it suits us, we insist that we must ‘trust the science’ and listen to the experts—except when the science doesn’t say what we want it to say, or when the experts turn out to be corrupt or wrong.
In today’s edition, Phillip and I talk about our attitude to one particular kind of expert—the academic intellectual or scholar, particularly in the areas that most bear on our beliefs about the world and truth and God: the philosophers, the sociologists, the theologians, the biblical scholars.
How we approach this subject connects closely to a theme we’ve been talking about quite a lot over the first few episodes of Two Ways News: the contrast between the Enlightenment modernism that has dominated our society for the past 150 years, and the postmodern critique of that view that has arisen in recent decades.
I began by asking Phillip about the different attitudes these two intellectual movements have towards scholarship and academic study, starting with classic Enlightenment modernism.
(What follows is a fairly heavily edited version of the conversation you can listen by clicking on the podcast player above.)
PJ: The Enlightenment was very optimistic about the potential of human reason and exploration to arrive at the truth. They were convinced that there was truth, and that it could be discovered through the classic methodologies of rationalism (i.e. thinking things out from first principles) and empiricism (i.e. the process of observing, testing, experimenting and arriving at theories to explain the results). Even the Romantics, who rejected both rationalism and empiricism, still thought that the truth could be found—but in a different way.
But what they had in common was the belief that we don’t come to the truth via God or theology or a trust in God’s revelation. We humans can do it without God.
TP: In many ways, the Enlightenment was built on a conscious rejection of any external authority or source of truth—most particularly from God or the Bible or the church. We find the truth by searching for it, not by having it revealed to us from outside.
PJ: And with that came the arrogance of humanity—that guided by reason alone (namely my reason), I will be able to rule this world. And people who require other sources of truth (like revelation) are really intellectually inferior, or they are poor benighted fools who are still living in darkness.
TP: So the classic Enlightenment intellectual, you could say, is cynical about the possibility of revealed truth from God, but quite confident and trusting in their own capacity to discover the truth.
PJ: There’s a lovely phrase that I was taught many years ago—gullible cynicism. They are quite gullible about themselves and about human rationality, while at the same time being terribly cynical about others and about God’s revelation.
TP: What’s the nature of that gullibility?
PJ: First and foremost, from a Christian perspective, it’s gullibility about their own sinfulness. And it’s not just how this sinfulness could undermine their view of the world, but gullibility about how much they were using the arguments of rationality and empiricism to explain, justify and rationalize their own sinfulness. It’s a gullibility about assumptions—as if we humans can actually proceed, without any kind of basic assumptions, and be able to evaluate the things of this world.
TP: In many ways, postmodernism blew the whistle on all of that. It said, “You've got to suspect human reason, and you've got to be cynical about the possibility of us ever finding the truth at all.”
PJ: Yes—postmodernism is the critique of modernism. Postmodernism is saying that the Enlightenment project is not just futile (there’s no truth to actually find), but that what is really happening is that people are using rationality and empiricism as the tools of oppression. The clever words and arguments that you're using, or the evidences that you bring to bear—these are all part of you exercising power over me, of you being able to persuade me or bully me or manipulate me into accepting your view of the world, which is always to your benefit.
TP: So postmodernism becomes cynical not only about the motives and structures and politics of the intellectual who's doing the investigation, but ultimately cynical about the possibility of there even being such a thing as truth.
PJ: And once you dispense with truth, it’s much easier to be cynical about those who are trying to argue for truth. Because if there is no truth, then what they're arguing for is not truth—they're just protecting their own position, and propping themselves up.
TP: How does this relate to the academic study of theology in modern secular universities?
PJ: Well in one sense, it’s the most impoverished discipline of all. Because whatever the differences between Enlightenment modernism and postmodernism, they both vehemently deny God’s existence, and the possibility that he could have revealed the truth in the Bible.
And so they approach the Bible as an entirely human document, looking for how and why it has been stitched together by people who had their own reasons for doing that. And so you find in university faculties of theology that nobody actually believes things. The professors do not profess faith.
The Bible is therefore approached with suspicion. Paul is writing this (if he wrote it) at the time he wrote it (if indeed it really was written at that time) because of some motive he had—to argue for his established views or his position or his orthodoxy. It’s not that this is a man writing what he thinks is the truth, let alone the possibility that it is the truth, let alone that God inspired it to be written this way. All those things are assumed from the outset to be out of the question.
TP: So the assumption is that all authors—including biblical authors—have their agendas, their political context, their own unacknowledged reasons for writing. Nothing is really as it seems. And yet somehow this cynicism doesn’t extend to the scholars themselves, and their own motives?
PJ: This is what Paul Johnson pointed out in his book The Intellectuals. He outlines the biographies of many of the key thinkers in our Western tradition: Rousseau, Shelley, Marx, Hemingway, Russell, Mead, and so on. In chapter after chapter, as you look at the private lives of these supposedly great intellectuals, it becomes apparent that the intellectual theories they espoused were profoundly self-interested. Their so-called scholarship was deeply biased towards justifying their own immorality, sinfulness and evil.
In one sense, this is what the postmoderns are saying—and we Christians need to say it too. The Enlightenment wanted to separate intellectual enquiry from moral or spiritual behaviour, but this is impossible. The Bible often says so. The fool says in his heart ‘There is no God’ (in Ps 14:1), but it is not just an intellectual folly. It is a moral failure as well—“They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is none who does good” the Psalmist immediately goes on to say. The folly of atheism stems from moral corruption and leads to more of it. People reject God because they don’t want God; they don’t want to be answerable to him.
And having rejected God and declared him dead, they now feel free to live as they wanted to.
TP: As you say, the postmoderns are rightly cynical about this aspect of Enlightenment modernism. They just don’t seem to turn that same cynicism back on themselves.
PJ: That’s right. That is the gullible cynicism of both the modernist and the postmodernist.
Postmodernists are also terribly gullible—about themselves. And so they write books telling us that words don't actually mean anything, which is as self-defeating a position as you can imagine. But they wave away the contradiction and irrationality by declaring it is all just part of my journey and my experience, which you can't take from me.
TP: It also strikes me that postmodern people are very gullible about the groups that they cluster in. In the absence of any overarching truth—or in fact any truth at all—you’d think that everyone would be free to pursue their own individual truth. But because (in the absence of truth) everything is really about power, what we do instead is cluster in groups who all hold the same moral and political positions, and try to gain the ascendancy. We have our tribes, based on holding the same, correct opinions. And if you don’t hold that view, you’re out—and you’re persecuted.
PJ: Yes, they are cynical about every other group or position—how they are just in it for power and money and influence and pride. But they set up their own equally self-interested tribe, with its own dogmas that can’t be questioned, and its own words that must be used.
TP: So back to thinking about biblical scholarship and theological scholarship—how should we think about it as Christians? We’re not anti-intellectual or anti-scholarship. But we also don’t want to be gullible about the realities we’ve been talking about. Should we be cynical then, or trusting?
PJ: Both and neither.
Do ‘university tests prove’, as the old advertising slogan said? Well, yes and no.
There’s no doubt that secular universities are great establishments, that since the Enlightenment have set up research programs and inquiries that have advanced human technology and human knowledge in a most extraordinary fashion. And it's been a wonderful thing to be the recipients of the last 250 years of this academic research, especially in areas like medicine and engineering. It's just phenomenal what has been worked out.
But university tests do not prove, because empiricism is always by definition open to further information and different understandings. You can always challenge the current theory with an alternate one. But challenging the current orthodoxy is not easy, because scientists are people too.
Take the peer review system. When any new proposal is made, an article has to go out for peer review before it is published—to see whether it comes up to standard. To take theology or biblical scholarship as an example, this can be very fraught. The peer who is reviewing the article must have a particular knowledge in that area, because they've already published their view in that area. And so for them to accept a new view, a contradictory view, a view that's going to undermine their years of scholarship … is highly unlikely. There can be honest people who will say, “Now that I've read this article, I realise that my last 30 years of scholarship was wrong”. But they are very rare creatures.
This is where the postmoderns are right. The peer review system has been undermined by the human desire for power. So it's very hard to get real change from the orthodoxy of liberal theology that is dominant in most university theology faculties.
It results in a kind of group think. Take the example of J.A.T. Robinson. He wrote a famous book called Honest to God in the early 60s, which was very liberal theologically, but he was also a very careful historian and New Testament scholar. He produced a book called Redating the New Testament, in which he argued that the books of the New Testament should be dated many, many years earlier than the orthodoxy says. And because of who he was, a respected Cambridge scholar and famous liberal Bishop, his book is often footnoted—but it never seems to be actually interacted with. To show that you're a true academic, you've got to acknowledge that it exists. But you do not let the arguments modify your view, because if J.A.T. Robinson is right about the dating of the New Testament, most New Testament scholarship would need to be rewritten.
Now I don't know if he's right or not, because I find very few people who are willing to enter into the debate on the subject. It's as if he hasn't spoken.
In terms of theological scholarship, a secular university is bound to teach unbelief, by assumption. A secular university in the Enlightenment and postmodern tradition has already assumed that there is no supernatural. So when you have a theology faculty or religious studies faculty in a secular university, you aren't teaching religion or theology. You’re teaching anti-religion and anti-theology, because that is your fundamental assumption.
When silly churches ordain people because they’ve got degrees in theology from the secularist universities, it’s little wonder that the clergy are not preaching the gospel in those kinds of denominations.
This is the fundamental problem of academic theology when it is done in a secularist university. It can never find the answers, because the answers have been removed by assumption.
TP: So how can we engage with biblical and theological scholarship and benefit from it, without falling into some of the traps we’re talking about?
PJ: Well, firstly, we mustn't be gullible about scholarship, particularly about the basic assumptions upon which the particular scholarship has been built. But we also mustn’t censor or ignore scholarship that is critical of us. We've got to test our ideas against whatever criticism of our ideas exists.
It's very important that evangelical scholars understand fully the critique that has been made of evangelical scholarship and belief—the critique that is made by unbelievers. We need to know what the false prophets of our day are saying, in order to be able to clarify the truth that the gospel teaches. We mustn't become gullible ourselves in the sense of believing everything our own tribe says, without questioning what our tribe is teaching.
These university scholars who are trained in a group-think that is hostile to Christianity—they are very good debating partners. It’s very important for us to study, read and understand what they’re saying. But it is equally important not to be gullible or to be impressed, just because some university professor is quoted in the media—because the media will quote Professor Somebody without ever questioning the kind of assumptions or way of life upon which the professor's academic career has been built. You need to have those postmodern glasses on and say, “This is a man who is rationalizing his sin”—but also without going to the other extra extreme and saying, “It’s impossible to know anything, and everything that he says can only ever be completely wrong”.
All good lies are covered with a lot of truth.
TP: So as we prepare Bible studies and sermons—as we read commentaries and theological works, we should read them critically and carefully …
PJ: Yes, the truth is found in the Scriptures, not in the scholarship about the scriptures. But it's important to see whom we’re reading—to see whether we’re reading a book written by somebody whose basic theology is a belief in God and the Scriptures, or not. And if it's not, we need to read with a sense of critical awareness about that.
And those who are full-time, paid Bible teachers—they need to be trained properly. They need to read liberal theology, not only so that they will truly understand and see where the errors are, but also to find the value of the liberal scholar who asks them hard questions, and arouses the interest into what the text of Scripture is actually saying—rather than just what their own evangelical group or tradition has always said.
But my experience is that conservative evangelical scholars know a lot more about liberal scholarship than every any liberal scholar ever knows about evangelical scholarship.
Thanks for the helpful comments and feedback you’ve been sending in as we settle into the rhythm of Two Ways News. You can just hit reply to the email newsletter when you receive it—or if you’re not a subscriber yet, sign up to get each week’s edition in your inbox (it’s free, although there are also some options to become a supporter)