Conservatives and Liberals in Biblical Studies

Josh Berman, professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University and author of the Oxford title Inconsistency in the Torah: Ancient Literary Convention and the Limits of Source Criticism, writes:

In biblical studies, there are two types of practitioners: genuine scholars, and conservative scholars. The former are presumed innocent, motivated only by the disinterested and rigorous search for truth and guided solely by the dictates of rational inquiry, unmodified and uncontaminated by ideology. The latter are presumed to be agenda-driven, and to have donned academic cap and gown only to achieve a surreptitious panache of legitimacy for their cherished and unreconstructed religious dogmas. To those it wishes to marginalize and delegitimize, the mainstream establishment will apply the label “conservative.”

Nota bene: I’m a conservative, and I have seen conservatives don cap and gown illegitimately. But I find that when the moderator at liberalism’s table (“a title deeply revealing,” Stanley Fish says) is himself a liberal, others who share his views will seem to him unremarkable and need no extra label. What can I say except that I pick up this feeling among biblical studies academics, too?

The solution is not to admit that conservatives—people who believe in the truth of the Bible they’re studying—can be objective, too, but to acknowledge that everyone has an agenda. Everyone has a worldview driven ultimately by loves at the center of his or her heart. I love God, and insofar as I love him and my neighbor I am liable to reach truth in my biblical studies. I also believe in the grace of God, so I believe that I and others can come to know the truth, the True truth and not merely the party line. But there will be disputes about who’s got that truth until the day when a fire will burn through the glass through which we now see darkly, the day when we know even as also we are known.

Berman again:

When a scholar adduces evidence for the unity of a text, even if he makes no mention of theology whatsoever, he is liable to be labeled a conservative and the academic form in which he expresses his argument will be dismissed as an impermissible weave of scholarship with the suspect ideology behind it. In Revelation & Authority, author JoshSommer explicitly and unabashedly reveals his theologically liberal views, but I suspect he would bristle at being labeled a “liberal scholar”—for to be so labeled would suggest that he lacks impartiality in considering evidence and that his reading of that evidence is driven by his liberal theology. But he need not worry: as things stand in the profession, and in marked contrast to the one-sided employment of the delegitimizing label “conservative,” the label “liberal” would never be applied, let alone applied pejoratively, even to a scholar who marshals one side in a scholarly debate to advance an openly liberal agenda.

Berman tells an interesting story—one that could surely be told about conservatives, too.

“Could you tell me when scholars say the Torah was written?” The question, posed to me by an Israeli student just after the last class of the day—an hour when most of his peers were heading out for the evening—was voiced by a secular kibbutznik in his mid-twenties who in the classroom had impressed me by his thoughtful demeanor. As we sat down, I began by mentioning the vast range of scholarly opinion on this issue.

“Well, then,” he interrupted, “what do most scholars say? What’s the consensus?”

Again I stressed the difficulty of defining a consensus, especially in light of the many scholars who believe that the Torah includes pre-existing traditions much older than the final text. Moreover, I continued, we have virtually no epigraphic attestations to the Torah from the biblical period itself, and the events described in it occurred many centuries prior to our oldest copies, which are copies of copies. “Perhaps the truest answer,” I suggested, “is that we may not be able to know when it was written.”

He pounded his fist on the table. “But we have to know!”

Pausing tentatively, I probed. “Why do we have to know?”

He pounded a second time. “Because they’re ruining the country!”

Were “they” the Israeli settlers in Judea and Samaria, the Ḥaredim, perhaps both? I was bemused by his apparent belief that if only he could march into the yeshivas of Bnei Brak with “proof” that the Torah wasn’t written by God, the students would chuck their yarmulkes and follow him out like the pied piper. But I was unsettled by his lack of intellectual honesty. He had posed an academic question but was willing to accept an academic answer only if it provided ammunition for his side in the culture wars…. In many quarters critical study of the Bible today has become weaponized in the service of cultural warfare.

May we submit to the word rather than make it submit to us. That’s the issue.

Why I Attended the Bible Faculty Summit

Last week I attended the Bible Faculty Summit, held this year at Appalachian Bible College. I thoroughly enjoyed the fellowship, the papers, and the hospitality shown by the school (and particularly the faculty liaison, John Rinehart).

It was something of a grueling trip across the country, however, and my wife had to hold down a very busy fort during my absence. Why did I go?

Because of a comment made to me after it was over by a PhD student in attendance. He said (and this is a paraphrase): “I’ve been out of classes for a year or so, and even though I’m still in the program, life and church ministry and work have been atrophied some of the academic biblical studies impulse I used to feel. The Summit reinvigorated my love for and interest in academic study of Scripture.”

That’s it. That’s why I help organize this event, and why I always attend—and have twisted the arms of several other younger guys to make sure they didn’t miss it.

The particular slice of the church served by the BFS desperately needs this event, even if it doesn’t know it does. The continued existence of it is a testimony not merely, I think, to relational ties that bind people with similar upbringings but to the validity of a certain set of values and ideas that need institutional support and articulation. When this little meeting dies, a signal testimony to the validity and necessity of those values dies with it.

But a great thing about the BFS is that the papers are on a wide variety of constructive topics; in none of my four Summits have I heard people beating drums. If anything, my own paper came the closest to engaging merely parochial concerns: I made an explicit “political” appeal to the attendees to change their approach to combating the doctrinal cancer of King James Onlyism. But it isn’t a secret, not a conspiracy. Anyone who wants to know can listen to the paper here. (Or they can read about it here when my book comes out in a few months.)

I also go because my papers help me and help my work. I discovered long ago as a student and then as a writer that it’s good for me to have deadlines. Whenever I’m way too busy to write something, a deadline somehow makes that something magically appear. A hard deadline involving reading that something to a group makes it magically appear on time. All the papers I have written for the Summit (or anything else) have helped me tremendously in my work at BJU Press and now at Faithlife, and all I did was write about what interested me at the time: Stanley Fish, the impossibility of true secularism, and ἀρσενοκοίτης in BDAG. This year I wrote about New Tools for Teaching Textual Criticism to Laypeople. Not as academic as the other topics I’ve done, but just as fun. And having to present to a group of smart people put pressure on me to dig below the surface.

I enjoyed other papers at the Summit, too:

  • I organized a little “debate” between Scott Aniol and Brian Collins on Christianity and culture which was stimulating and excellent and gracious and boy-do-I-wish-I-had-recorded-it-that-was-a-major-mistake-sorry-folks.
  • Kyle Dunham shared with us some of his work on intertextuality between Ecclesiastes and Deuteronomy, work which complements his commentary for Lexham’s Evangelical Exegetical Commentary series. He’s good; he does his homework.
  • C.J. Harris told us the story of the first Genevan/Huguenot foreign mission in the Reformation era. I was sad to hear it was something of a flop, but glad to know this story of which I was hitherto completely ignorant.
  • Mark Sidwell gave another church history paper on another aspect of the Reformation of which I was completely unaware: Katherine Zell, the wife of a pastor and a feisty writer and Bible teacher in her own right. Very interesting.
  • Troy Manning discussed literacy in biblical times. I wish we had more solid information on that issue, but it was still profitable. I found it particularly stimulating to hear his critiques of the orality movement.

I’ll just stop there having given the papers that first occurred to me, but the others did solid work, too. If you are a PhD or PhD student within that little slice of the church I inhabit—you know who you are—then you should come next year around the first week of August (date and location TBD, but SC is a leading possibility =).

Dan Wallace on Textual Criticism

I just finished listening to three dozen half-hour lectures by Dan Wallace on textual criticism. They were masterful, absolutely superb. And they’re free online at Credo House.

Wallace is an engaging lecturer with incomparable (among evangelicals) direct experience with the study and practice of textual criticism. All Christians owe him a debt, even the crazy guy who once told me that the only thing Wallace’s grammar is good for is for target practice…

Wallace will educate you and increase your faith in Scripture, a faith he shares. He goes toe-to-toe repeatedly with Bart Ehrman and KJV-Onlyism in particular (left toe against Ehrman, right toe against KJVOs). Highly recommended.

Final Lecture for Asia Center for Advanced Christian Studies

In which I take students through How to Think about Others’ Exegetical Fallacies and then talk through some portions of my dissertation that focused on ἀγάπη (agape) and what it “really” means. No, like, for real this time.