The Idol of Scholarship and Academic Naivety

I just came across a blog that I won’t name so as not to make this a personal matter, but the author has, in effect, turned scholarship into an idol, forsaking the ministry for scholarship and seemingly treating scholarship as the pinnacle of all that is good and holy. Said individual has a very particular understanding of what constitutes scholarship, which according to him, can be pretty much boiled down to the historical-critical method. Any talk of of God turns the scholarship into something else altogether.

Anyway, aside from having a lofty view of scholarship, this person also seems have a naive understanding of what scholars can/should do and what scholarship is supposed to be. He said the following in a comment on his blog:

Facts only and no theological agenda; I have come to have a deep conviction that honest scholars should evaluate the data, absent of their own presuppositions, bias, and religious dogma. In my opinion, this is often the reason scholars come to different conclusions, despite the fact, they are all looking at the same data. This site is interested in factual data.

But if we’re gonna talk about honesty then honesty demands that we admit that there is no such thing as evaluating data absent of our presuppositions, bias, and religious dogma, whatever these may be. That champion of historical criticism Rudolf Bultmann wrote an essay ages ago called “Is Exegesis without Presuppositions Possible?” in which he determined that it was not. Mind you, he distinguished between presuppositions and prejudice, which determines what the text is allowed to say before one ever gets to it, but he was not so naive as to think that brute facts existed and that any piece of information could be interpreted apart from prior commitments.

Of course Bultmann wasn’t an innovator in this regard. I can think of a number of Dutchmen who had come to the same conclusion before Bultmann, but they were theologians, so I dare not mention their names with respect to scholarship. I can think name a bunch of biblical scholars who have affirmed the same thing as well, but they’re all confessing Christians who reverence Scripture as the word of God, so I best not name those names either.

But I discerned a bit more of what seems like naivety of the Ehrmanian variety in poking around this blog. Readers of Ehrman’s popular books know that his discovery of textual variants in the NT manuscript tradition set him down the path of agnosticism (the problem of evil is what he says made him really lose his faith). But Ehrman was under the impression that if the Bible was truly the word of God then God would have preserved it perfectly. That’s a naive belief. One wonders if Ehrman would have apostatized had he had more realistic expectations.

The blog author to which I’ve been referring says that he had expected to find unanimous agreement on all things theological and when he discovered a diversity of beliefs in the first few Christian centuries it pushed him into his pursuit of historical-critical scholarship. But his expectation was as naive as Ehrman’s. And I can’t, for the life of me, see how this individual’s personal quest for the historical Jesus and the origin of early Christianity is ever going to actually help him out. It seems that he’ll just be adding another in a long list of diverse beliefs to the mix. It actually adds to the problem.

But like I said, my beef isn’t with this person, just his paradigm. He’s not unique. I’ve encountered the idol of scholarship repeatedly over the last decade. I nearly worshiped it myself for a time. And the myth of neutrality runs rampant among those who value historical-critical scholarship to such high degrees, but myth it is, and not in the sense that historical criticism talks about myth in biblical literature either. ;-)

With that said, I value scholarship. I thank God for the myriad of people who have given significant portions of their lives to the study of Scripture and everything that goes along with studying Scripture. I wouldn’t have my English Bibles without them. I wouldn’t have a thousand academic volumes lining my bookshelves without them. I wouldn’t be interested in half the things I’m interested in without them. But the best scholars are those who recognize their presuppositions rather than deny that they have them or try to suppress them. The best scholars are those who submit their scholarship to the Lordship of Christ rather than treating scholarship as a lord in itself.

And that’s that.

B”H

7 thoughts on “The Idol of Scholarship and Academic Naivety

  1. It’s common to hear now:

    “I used to be a poor, dumb fundamentalist like many of you. I was a ‘true believer’ and even served in a church, but now I have studied the facts without any bias. Now, I only read the best scholarship and only interact with respected scholarly work.”

    Isn’t this fundamentalism? We have a fundamental set of beliefs about history, metaphysics, etc. and all other arguments are excluded by definition. In fact, they are not only excluded, but ridiculed.

    I studied at a school that only valued “true academic scholarship,” and the mere mention of an evangelical received scorn and comments about how we should strive to avoid fundamentalists in our research efforts. We were also scorned from reading classical scholarship. In fact, the rule was that anything over 80 years old could not be cited in a paper to support our point, unless we were citing it as a piece of historical perspective. We were encouraged to interact with the “real movers and shakers” who were turning the entire paradigm of Christianity upside down.

    If you mentioned Bruce Waltke with a Ph.D. from Harvard and a Th.D. from DTS then you were a fundy and should be reading better works. Yet if you mentioned John Shelby Spong who only has an M.Div., then you were “on the leading edge of theological thought.” It wasn’t the credentials or the ideas that mattered as much as falling into a certain paradigm. Thankfully, at the evangelical school I later attended, we studied a broader spectrum including radicals, moderates and conservatives.

  2. Kyle: You hit the nail on the head. I’ve mentioned in a couple of reviews of Andreas Kösternberger’s books how impressed I am with the breadth of his reading and interaction, which is quite common for conservative evangelicals, yet surprisingly uncommon for their counterparts to the left. Confessing scholarship is written off and ridiculed as “apologetics” while skeptical scholarship is “critical” even when it shows little evidence of critical thinking!

  3. Nick,

    Just goes to show that “neutral” scholarships is NOT neutral. Every one has a worldview. That worldview is religious whether it is called that or not. There is the “a priori” assumption that any thing religious or theological is NOT true. This also means that the “academic” scholarship’s premise that any thing that is “theological” is not “historical” is a false construct. In fact, Michael J. Kruger’s new book, Canon Revisited (April, 2012, Crossway) deals with the false idea of “historical neutrality.” I highly recommend the book to be read by all.

  4. I could go on and on about how much I enjoyed Kruger’s book. It is excellent on a number of fronts.

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