Tuesday, January 17, 2006

On skepticism and biblical criticism

It is a standard evangelical complaint is that critics treat the Bible with a degree and type of skepticism that they do not employ under similar circumstances with other texts. I attributed this view to Lewis, but I did not actually make the argument myself.

The complaint Lewis made about texts was that biblical scholars made judgments about texts which conflicted with what he knew as a literary scholar. Some biblical scholar had described John's gospel as a spiritual romance along the lines of Pilgrim's Progress, and Lewis thought that someone who said something like that had had his nose in biblical texts for so long that he was unfamiliar with what romances are really like.

The impression that I have is that radical Biblical scholarship is forced to accept certain interpretations of texts in order to avoid accepting the supernatural content that you would have to accept on interpretations that would come more naturally otherwise.

However, by itself this is not a crime. Everyone evaluates situations based on what they take to be antecedently probable. Different scholars approach biblical texts with different credence functions. No one comes in from a neutral perspective, and we have no reason to expect that they should. However the fact that Bultmann has massive expertise in the study of the NT documents is going to cut a lot less ice with me than it would otherwise if I know that he rules out the possibility of the miraculous from the outset. Which he does (and offers appallingly bad arguments for doing so). What gets tricky is sometimes the expertise of someone like Bultmann will convince students that he has reached his skeptical conclusions based on the evidence, when in fact he has reached his skeptical conclusions by presupposing them to begin with.

3 comments:

Randy said...

I'm uncertain of what you mean by radical scholarship. I would assume by default that it would be a minority position within the field of biblical scholarship?
Nor am I sure of what you mean by interpretations that come more naturally. Is that just plain old common sense?

In any case, the whole supernatural vs. natural presuppositionalism you rely on here is rather misplaced. One need not deny the supernatural in order to reach the conclusion that, for example, the woman caught in adultery episode in John was not part of the original text of that book. Or that the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke are not completely accurate from an historical perspective - too many discrepencies between the two.

Look into the excellent biblical studies that Raymond E. Brown put out. He did not have an a priori conviction that supernaturalism is false.

I'm wondering, it seems that you are in someway conflating supernaturalism with adherence to one particular type of interpretation of scripture. Father Brown certainly believed in the supernatural but that didn't mean he had to accept the traditional view that all the events related in the birth narratives were historically accurate. In his book "The Birth of the Messiah" he lays out an excellent case, based on the textual evidence, for the view that the birth narrative in Matthew was shaped to a large degree by themes and events drawn from the Old Testament scripture.

Victor Reppert said...

By radical scholarship I mean scholarship that involves an across-the-board skepticism about any narratives involving the miraculous. That doesn't mean that all of these must be accepted as true simply because we are prepared. from the outset, to take miraculous possibilities seriously. So Brown would not be a radical scholar in my book.

Dr. Wainwright's positions was that if you were prepared to accept the possibility of the miraculous, it is reasonable to so in many cases. I accepted that position then, I have seen no reason to change my mind since.

Randy said...

"Dr. Wainwright's positions was that if you were prepared to accept the possibility of the miraculous, it is reasonable to so in many cases. I accepted that position then, I have seen no reason to change my mind since."


1. Miracles are possible.
2. A book contains accounts of many miracles
3. The book is historically accurate.

Looks like fallacious reasoning to me. Simple acknowledgement of the possibility of the miraculaous does not help us in determining the likeleood of the veracity of a book.

That is why I think your supernatualism vs. naturalism presuppositionalism is misguided. It is kind of like a red herring that distracts one from the real issues in interpreting and analyzing any ancient text. One has to look at the actual evidence and arguments the scholar uses in order to evaluate the validity of his analysis of a particular text.