Saturday, August 8, 2009

An example of fideism, keeping biblical and canonical studies at bay

Here a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has written an essay that purports to give the evangelical view on scripture. Basically, he takes the same position that many conservatives for some reason think they can credibly keep making. They keep digging their heels in and saying that Warfield has already said everything that needs to be said about scripture and if Warfield didn't ultimately mangage to do done that, at the very least he's said all there is to say in response to whatever critics of inerrancy can ever imagine to say.

Now considering my most recent post on Sparks' observations that conservatives consistently go into fideistic mode in their attempts to raise their views of scripture above anything biblical studies could ever say regarding scripture, this professor's essay serves as an excellent example of what Sparks is talking about.

After enlisting the standard conservative objection against critical scholarship--the one that objects that one should always listen to God (somehow God tells them the Bible is inerrant) rather than men (biblical scholars who point out that it's much more difficult than that)--the author of the above essay writes this: “In addition to this I would observe that a remarkable amount of confidence is necessary to declare the Bible to be in error.”

A remarkable amount of confidence? Kent Sparks says that there is "a veritable avalanche of data." Researchers like Sparks are not going out on a limb, they are being responsible practitioners in their fields of specialization. I'd say, in fact, that it is the inerrantist evangelical who is placing an undue amount of confidence on their inconclusive inductive case that they mustered for inerrantist position. That's what happens in many cases when young evangelicals go off to school, seminary, university. The avalanche of data to which Sparks refers gradually exposes itself to students in varying doses and manages to make students less confident about the way that inerrancy has been explained to them in the past and when they try to reconstruct the inductive case for themselves, its gaping holes become all too apparent to them. When they go back to try and look at the issue anew to see if they can make some progress from an inerrantist standpoint, they become more and more sure that the data is, in fact, increasing while the way that conservatives argue for their position is stuck in historical rut. And THEN they find believing critical scholars who are still in conversation with evangelicals who are lamenting that there is an all-too-willing passing-over of historically conscious exegetical considerations that should normally go into reading scripture, that conservatives are simply not doing. Eventually, students become more and more suspect of inerrantist scholarship generally.

This is why I'm taking the time to write about this essay by this professor from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. For some reason thinks that if one if one is going to challenge the popular inerrantist view, then one had better be sure that they are "absolutely certain that one is correct about so many things” (who would imagine that such a dilemma exists in biblical scholarship except for an inerrantist?). But this is presicely the fideistic ploy that Sparks is talking about that is supposed to keep people from engaging the data head on on its own terms. And it will not hold students off forever.

To similar effect, when the the author of the said essay engages scholarship on the matter of canon, he relies almost exclusively on the proposals of Beckwith with regard to the extent and dating of the canonical process of the OT (The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church). This is not a smart move if one bears in mind what Sparks says about how little credibility limited engagements with scholarship turn knowledgable readers off to evangelical scholarship generally. If I can use myself as an example here, I am not even a specialist in the field and I already know that L. M. MacDonald writes: “Beckwith’s view that Jude was not appealing to 1Enoch as sacred Scripture is confusing since it is especially in Jude’s appeal to and use of such literature that one can see how the author understood the book. Jude cites the passage as a prophetic text, that is, as a Spirit-led text. By most definitions of Scripture, this is a reference to sacred Scripture. If Jude thought that the passage was spoken through prophecy, then he clearly saw it as inspired and equal to the status of Scripture.” (The Biblical Canon, 106) In fact, MacDonald feels compelled to spend several pages critiquing Beckwith’s understanding of a closed canon, explaing that “Beckwith in particular largely ignores the many references in early Christian literature to the noncanonical literature and especially its significant place among the Dead Sea Scrolls.” (108) And MacDonald does not come across as some liberal scholar with a conservative axe to grind.

Furthermore, it is not hard for students to learn that MacDonald is not the only one who views Beckwith's position with suspicion. MacDonald is one of many specialists who see Beckwith’s proposal as anachronistic. VanderKam is another specialist, who finds Beckwith's suggestions impossible. According to MacDonald: “VanderKam argues that Beckwith and sometimes Leiman tend to read their texts anachronistically and try to make what later obtained in Judaism and later Protestant Christianity a reality before the time of Jesus.” (108) The essay under review is another attempt to see if one can find the sola scriptura dynamic operative in the 2nd century.

To make matters worse, the author of the present essay retreats to a curious polemical position that requires that Jude must explicitly say that the whole book (which redaction?) of 1 Enoch is scripture in order for us to understand that Jude accepted 1 Enoch as scripture. Yet by this criterion, one should by parity of reasoning inquire more critically into whether the Protestant canon explicitly refers to each of its individual components as scripture. It certainly does not. In like manner, the inductive case for inerrancy does not refer to each part of the Protestant canon and say in unequivocal terms that this corpus is inerrant. In fact, approaching the issue of canon in this way will never arrive at a definitive canon. Even Jenson (who was cited in my last post) reminds his readers that no matter what tradition one belongs to all parties have to concede that it is the believing communities who are the ones who eventually gathered their various books together into canons. Yet even a passing perusal of the literature of canonical studies will show that the Protestant canon is not the historical mainstay in the way that conservative evangelicals hoped it could be. I go more into this in my first book. Sexton, who our author invokes quite a bit, accuses me of not letting evangelicals answer the critical questions in my book, but even he concedes that my engagement of the literature is "good and substantial." Both Sexton and our author are wrong for thinking Grisanti's article is going to save the day. When Grisanti's insights are set within the context of critical canonical discussions, his observations will make much better sense in a non-inerrantist framework and inerrancy will seem a hindrance from properly understanding the canonical process.

One last observation. J. A. Sanders explains that “Most scholars took Lewis’s work to mean that release from the Jamnia mentality signified release from the neat three-stage scheme of the canonization of the Hebrew Bible as well. The terms of the debate were re-formulated, as it were.” ("The Issue of Closure in the Canonical Process,” in The Canon Debate, 254) Lewis' article published in 1964. But none of this matters to many conservatives because everything that has to be said on critical scholarship has already been said by Warfield and any developments since then are already anticipated in Warfield's remarks.

But Warfield had much to learn about canon as demonstrated by C. Allert, an evangelical on all counts. He decries the shortcomings of evangelical scholarship that treats the NT canon along Warfieldian lines, decrying a tendenz among evangelicals to keep wishing their contemporary (Warfieldian) understandings of canon upon the ancient church:

“Evangelicals seem to have a natural affinity with a closed second-century New Testament canon because of the assumption that, for most of their history, Christians had a Bible to which they could make sole appeal. This foundational presupposition that Christianity always had a Bible subsequently guides all investigation into New Testament canon formation. With this presupposition as a guide, it is only natural, therefore, to conclude that the closing of the New Testament canon must have occurred quite soon after the time of the apostles. But as we have seen, the understanding that the second century had a closed New Testament canon is difficult to maintain.” (A High View of Scripture?, 87.)

Even as I try to phase out of discussions about the Bible, I have this lingering concern about where students are supposed to turn when they have critical questions in this area? The ICBI's Chicago Statement? I'm afraid this document, that is, IF young evangelicals have even heard of it, will not be able to pull the wool over their eyes forever.