In a very stimulating article, “Bible Scholarship and Faith-Based Study: My View,” Michael V. Fox discussed the role of faith-based scholarship within the scope of academic scholarship. As a distinguished Jewish scholar at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Professor Fox draws on his many years as a teacher to write on an issue that is relevant to everyone who is involved in biblical studies.
His contention is that faith-based study of the Bible has no place in academic circles because its primary purpose is to provide “moral inspiration and spiritual guidance.” Faith-based professors bring into the study of the Bible a predetermined conclusion in order to provide spiritual guidance and moral lessons.
Academic scholarship is Wissenschaft, the kind of scholarship that is based on evidence that is “accessible and meaningful.” Wissenschaft professors bring into the study of the Bible a “secular, academic, religiously-neutral hermeneutics.”
In response, Jacques Berlinerblau wrote an article, “The Unspeakable in Biblical Scholarship,” in which he addresses some of the issues raised in Professor Fox’s article. First, he agrees with Fox that faith-based biblical study should happen in seminaries and other religious institutions. Second, he disagrees with Fox saying that there is no such thing as a “secular academic religiously-neutral hermeneutics.”
In his discussion of faith-based professors, Berlinerblau writes,
“To their credit, however, faith-based scholars are often cognizant that they are engaged in a confessional enterprise. It is another category of Biblicist that, to my mind, is far more problematic. It is comprised of researchers who in every facet of their private lives are practicing Jews or Christians, but who — somehow — deny that this may influence their professional scholarly work (which just happens to concern those documents that are the fount of Judaism and Christianity!). This category extends to researchers in ancient Near Eastern Studies, who, anecdotally, are often very conservative in their religious views. It also applies, with some sectarian modifications, to many members of the American Academy of Religion. I am always amused to hear how some higher-ups in the latter society complain about the religious conservatism of the SBL — as if the AAR embodies the blasphemous spirit of Jean-Paul Sartre, Chairman Mao, and the Oakland Raiders of the 70s.”
The reference to the Oakland Raiders of the 1970s brings fond memories to Oakland Raiders fans. In the 1970s, the Raiders was one of the most successful football franchises in the National Football League. Under the leadership of John Madden as coach, the Raiders became a powerhouse and eventually won three Super Bowls.
The Raiders of the 1970s were very aggressive, but some would say mean and vicious. That aggressiveness attracted many fans to the Raiders and that became their trademark. To many Raiders fans, football is their religion. This is the reason they call the Oakland Coliseum, “The Temple that Al Davis built.”
Berlinerblau conjectures the possibility that some members of the AAR may embody “the blasphemous spirit of the Oakland Raiders of the 70s.” His conjecture, however, raises a good question: what would be the characteristics of a professor that embodies the blasphemous spirit of the Oakland Raiders of the 1970s?
If blasphemy can be defined as any speech that is uttered against sacred things, then Berlinerblau himself provides examples of those professors who embody the blasphemous spirit of the Oakland Raiders of the 1970s.
For example, he speaks of professors who “come to conclusions that imperiled the dogmas of the religious groups to which they belong.” I had a professor in seminary who said that Christians did not have to evangelize Buddhists because the Logos of God entered Buddha and anyone who believed in Buddha believed in Christ. This statement embodies the blasphemous spirit of the Oakland Raiders of the 1970s.
Berlinerblau ascribes a heroic function to biblical scholars, depicting them “as (unwitting) agents of secular modernity.” Many years ago, I attended seminary with a young man who was profoundly influenced by a professor who was a follower of Rudolf Bultmann. When that young man preached a sermon in chapel before his graduation, he concluded his sermon by saying: “I don’t believe in the Virgin Birth; I don’t believe in the miracles; I don’t believe in the divinity of Christ; and I don’t believe in the Resurrection. In short, I don’t know what I believe.” Then, that young man sat down, graduated from seminary, and became the pastor of a large church.
With a faith like that, what could that young man preach to his congregation? His professor was an agent of secular modernity and one who embodied the blasphemous spirit of the Oakland Raiders of the 1970s.
In describing how faith-based professors have followed the criteria of scholarship set by academia, Berlinerblau wrote:
“I would note that Julius Wellhausen and William Robertson Smith were most decidedly not Voltaire and Marx. They were not cultured despisers of religion, but profoundly pious individuals. It is a world-historical irony that their heresies played a role in the continuing secularization of the Occident.”
It is said that Voltaire wrote that one hundred and fifty years after his death, his books would be better known than the Bible. It is amazing that what Voltaire and Marx were unable to accomplish with their writings, the secularization of the West, was accomplished by those who adopted Wellhausen’s theory. Note that Berlinerblau calls Wellhausen’s theory a “heresy.”
Is it possible for faith-based professors to adopt a modified view of Wellhausen’s theory without compromising faith and scholarship? I believe that it can be done.
The study of the Bible in universities is different from the study of the Bible in seminaries and religious schools. In the university it becomes necessary that one be able to separate what one believes from what one teaches. But there is no unbiased interpretation. The only way a person can interpret the Bible unbiasedly is by being a non-practicing Jew or Christian who is not an atheist, a secularist, or an agnostic. However, that kind of person is as rare as the Behemoth.
If scholarship requires evidence to evaluate historical events that happened in the distant past, should faith-based professors be excluded? After all, the Bible is a religious book and a secular or an atheist scholar may have a difficult time understanding a religious book from the perspective of the faith of those who wrote the Bible.
An atheist approaches the Bible from the perspective that there is no God, when in fact the whole Bible is about God. The secularist and the agnostic also approach the Bible with their own presuppositions which in turn, produce a very biased interpretation. That is the primary reason an atheist, an agnostic, or a secularist will have a tough time finding employment with institutions that carry the words “Saint,” “Holy,” “Theological,” or “Seminary” in their names.
Even academic neutral hermeneutic makes moral evaluations about items in the Bible. For instance, professor Fox views with abhorrence the events in the book of Joshua, even when Wissenschaft professors say that there is no historical evidence that most of those events took place.
Faith-based professors must interpret the Bible and must make contributions to biblical studies because it is my contention that, in the study of the Bible, faith and reason must come together. For faith-based professors who are preparing men and women to serve and minister in religious communities, it becomes imperative that their teaching does not embody the blasphemous spirit of the Oakland Raiders of the 1970s, whatever that is.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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