Bible Scholarship and Faith-Based Study: My View
Recently, claims have been made for the legitimacy of faith-based scholarship in the forum of academic scholarship (on a related issue, see the recent FORUM article by Mary Bader and the responses to it). In my view, faith-based study has no place in academic scholarship, whether the object of study is the Bible, the Book of Mormon, or Homer. Faith-based study is a different realm of intellectual activity that can dip into Bible scholarship for its own purposes, but cannot contribute to it. I distinguish faith-based Bible study from the scholarship of persons who hold a personal faith. In our field, there are many religious individuals whose scholarship is secular and who introduce their faith only in distinctly religious forums.
Faith-based study of the Bible certainly has its place—in synagogues, churches, and religious schools, where the Bible (and whatever other religious material one gives allegiance to) serves as a normative basis of moral inspiration or spiritual guidance. This kind of study is certainly important, but it is not scholarship—by which I mean Wissenschaft, a term lacking in English that can apply to the humanities as well as the hard sciences, even if the modes and possibilities of verification in each are very different. (It would be strange, I think, to speak of a "faith-based Wissenschaft.")
Any discipline that deliberately imports extraneous, inviolable axioms into its work belongs to the realm of homiletics or spiritual enlightenment or moral guidance or whatnot, but not scholarship, whatever academic degrees its practitioners may hold. Scholarship rests on evidence. Faith, by definition, is belief when evidence is absent. "There can ... be no faith concerning matters which are objects of rational knowledge, for knowledge excludes faith" (thus Aquinas, as paraphrased by the Enc. of Philosophy 3.165). And evidence must be accessible and meaningful apart from the unexaminable axioms, and it must not be merely generated by its own premises. (It is not evidence in favor of the Quran's divine origin that millions of people believe it deeply, nor is it evidence of its inerrancy that the it proclaims itself to be "the Scripture whereof there is no doubt.") To be sure, everyone has presuppositions and premises, but these are not inviolable. Indeed, it is the role of education to teach students how to recognize and test their premises and, when necessary, to reject them.
Faith-based Bible study is not part of scholarship even if some of its postulates turn out to be true. If scholarship, such as epigraphy and archaeology, should one day prove the existence of a Davidic empire, faith-based study will have had no part in the discovery (even if some epigraphers incidentally hold faith of one sort or another) because it starts with the conclusions it wishes to reach.
There is an atmosphere abroad in academia (loosely associated with postmodernisms) that tolerates and even encourages ideological scholarship and advocacy instruction. Some conservative religionists have picked this up. I have heard students, and read authors, who justify their biases by the rhetoric of postmodern self-indulgence. Since no one is viewpoint neutral and every one has presuppositions, why exclude Christian presuppositions? Why allow the premise of errancy but not of inerrancy? Such sophistry can be picked apart, but the climate does favor it.
The claim of faith-based Bible study to a place at the academic table takes a toll on the entire field of Bible scholarship. The reader or student of Bible scholarship is likely to suspect (or hope) that the author or teacher is moving toward a predetermined conclusion. Those who choose a faith-based approach should realize that they cannot expect the attention of those who don't share their postulates. The reverse is not true. Scholars who are personally religious constantly draw on work by scholars who do not share their postulates. One of the great achievements of modern Bible scholarship is that it communicates across religious borders so easily that we usually do not know the beliefs of its practitioners.
Trained scholars quickly learn to recognize which authors and publications are governed by faith and tend to set them aside, not out of prejudice but out of an awareness that they are irrelevant to the scholarly enterprise. Sometimes it is worthwhile to go through a faith-motivated publication and pick out the wheat from the chaff, but time is limited.
The best thing for Bible appreciation is secular, academic, religiously-neutral hermeneutic. (I share Jacques Berlinerblau's affirmation of the secular hermeneutic [The Secular Bible, Cambridge, 2005], review here, but not his ideas about what it constitutes or where it leads). Secular scholarship allows the Bible to be seen as a rich and vital mixture of texts from an ancient people in search of God and moral culture. Its humanness—and primitiveness—can allow us both to recognize and make allowances for some of its uglier moments (Lev 18:22, for example or Deut 20:10-20, or much of Joshua). These things would (in my view) be abhorrent coming from the Godhead, but tolerable when viewed (and dismissed) as products of human imperfection and imagination in an ancient historical context.
We are in a time when pseudo-scientific claims are demanding a place in the science curriculum, and biologists and zoologists cannot afford to ignore them. Similar voices wish to insert themselves into academic Bible scholarship, and serious adherents of Bibelwissenschaft should likewise offer opposition.
Michael V. Fox, University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Comments on this article? email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Citation: Michael V. Fox, " Bible Scholarship and Faith-Based Study: My View," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Feb 2006]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=490