The Myth of Objectivity

Eric Vanden Eykel posted a Tweet thread on a recent blog post by Tavis Bohlinger on the Logos Academic Blog. The post in question was Joel B. Green’s answer to the question: “What makes a good biblical scholar?” Joel has clarified in the comments to that post that he was addressing a similar but different question, namely: “What makes a good scholar of the Bible understood as the church’s Scripture?”

My concern isn’t with the post itself but rather with one of the comments that followed the post. Someone named Matt West said the following in response:

What makes a good Biblical scholar is someone who studiess [sic] the writings in terms of their origin, history, and intent; someone who strives to comprehend the material and its impact on history, literature, and philosophy. What you describe in your essay is what makes a good Christian scholar. There is a huge difference between these two. The first is objective and scientific, the second is subjective and done with prejudice.

I wish I had the time to adequately unpack everything that’s wrong with this comment but I’m writing this on the fly before I head off to work. I will say two things. First, objectivity is a myth. What do I mean? I mean that there is no such thing as a “brute fact,” that is, an uninterpreted fact that has no reference to some other fact. Any-and- every-thing has to be interpreted and every interpretation will be contingent upon the facts that one has already acquired or the beliefs that one already holds.

An atheist who interprets the Bible does so through the lens of their disbelief. A Christian who interprets the Bible does so through their lens of belief. There’s a lot more to be said about this (especially in terms of autonomous reasoning versus thinking God’s thoughts after him) but I’ll have to say those things at a different time. The point is that Bultmann was right when he said there is no presuppositionless exegesis. This idea that one can just read the text and understand it without coming to the text with both hidden and apparent presuppositions is preposterous.

Second, Mr. West seems to say, or at the very least imply, that a Christian is not capable of this so-called scientific and objective scholarship. Christians, you see, approach the text subjectively and with prejudice. One could reason that as long as you’re not a Christian then you’re good to go and can understand the text for what it’s really saying. I mean, Christians don’t study “the writings in terms of their origin, history, and intent” and they certainly don’t “[strive] to comprehend the material and its impact on history, literature, and philosophy.” Why would they?

I’d love to take a moment to note how absolutely arbitrary this list is anyway, but I really do have to get to work. I’d argue that Christian scholarship is even more concerned with getting to the truth of the biblical text because they’re the ones who think this stuff actually matters! The believing scholar genuinely cares (or should) about what the original author intended to communicate to his audience and is constantly asking what impact this has on the community of believers today. Asking that question forces the believing scholar to look at the impact of the text throughout history.

Okay, I really gotta go. More anon…


3 thoughts on “The Myth of Objectivity

  1. I haven’t visited this blog in a long time. I’ll have to visit more often.

    But I simply must respond to your argument regarding objectivity.

    Is objectivity a myth? No, not unless by “objectivity” one means the attainment of a 100% objective viewpoint. The fact of the matter is that objectivity is something that *can* be achieved by degrees, and that it is the duty of the interpreter to seek to achieve as much objectivity as possible. As I have said elsewhere, saying that one shouldn’t strive for objectivity because a 100% objective viewpoint is an impossible ideal, is like saying that one shouldn’t use motor oil because a 100% frictionless engine is an impossible ideal.

    In point of fact, the argument that says that objectivity is a myth could be applied, *mutatis mutandis*, to say that *subjectivity* is a myth–*viz.* a 100% subjective viewpoint is just as impossible as a 100% objective viewpoint. (Try and think a thought in which none of the furniture of the world encroaches. It’s impossible.) So where are the people arguing that we shouldn’t try to be subjective?

    Those who say that we should not seek to be as objective as possible, because objectivity is impossible (*viz.* that it “is a myth”), are not thinking clearly about the whole affair. The fact that 100% objectivity is unattainable is a red herring. Unfortunately, those who are going around denigrating the idea/ideal of objectivity tend to have a whole arsenal of half-baked arguments (I refer especially to the Theological Interpretation crowd), but they are never sufficiently self-critical to see how weak their arguments are.

  2. John: Great to hear from you! It’s been ages! I’m afraid that stopping by more often won’t yield much. I hardly have time for blogging these days. A few things in response:

    1. I actually agree with you that we should seek to be as objective as possible.

    2. My statement that “objectivity is a myth” should be understood in light of what followed it, namely the claim that there is no fact that isn’t somehow interpreted with reference to other facts. I actually do believe in objective reality, but I think that such a concept only makes sense in a Christian worldview.

    3. The commenter to whom I was responding seems to believe that Christians can’t be objective interpreters of the Bible because of their subjectivity and prejudice. My point was that the so-called scientific and objective non-believing interpreter is in no way any less prone to subjectivity and prejudice.

  3. I’m glad you agree. I guess I wasn’t reading you objectively enough.

    It’s been so long since I’ve commented here that I don’t remember if I go by “John” or “Jack”.

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