Saturday, January 15, 2011

Levenson's definition of what it is to be a critical scholar

I went looking for a quote that Loftus used a few times about what it means to be a critical scholar. 

Jon D. Levenson, Professor at Harvard Divinity School in the Department of Near Eastern Studies and Civilizations, offered a great definition of what a critical scholar is when he wrote they “are prepared to interpret the text against their own preferences and traditions, in the interest of intellectual honesty.”

I like this definition, but I have trouble seeing how you can apply it to other people in any way that doesn't beg the question. I think we humans have a natural tendency to think that someone has done this when they agree with us, and if they disagree with us, they are following their preferences and traditions. I am thinking of people like Eta Linneamann, who went from a very liberal scholar to a very conservative one. Preferences and traditions could and should include prevailing winds in scholarship. Those can exercise as much peer pressure on scholars as can the religious tradition in which one grew up. Assuming that we call the more skeptical view left-wing, and the more believing views right-wing, can we call any move to the left a sign that one is a critical scholar, while any move to the right is a sign that one has become uncritical? That sounds a tad question-begging. 

Another example would be John A. T. Robinson, the Anglican bishop who shocked conservatives with Honest to God, then shocked conservatives with Redating the New Testament. 

I love intellectual honesty, so there is something appealing about this definition. I am just afraid that it is likely to be applied in a question-begging manner, to disenfranchise and marginalize conservative scholars. 


Mike Erich the Mad Theologian said...

The main thing that needs to be remembered here is there are bias both ways. There is a strong bias in our culture to believe in a naturalistic view of the world. This does not prove who is right and who is wrong, but to take the bias all as a one way street is simplistic.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I like this definition very much. If you like it then with me you must disagree with the conservatives like NT Wright who argue instead for a confessional scholarship over a critical scholarship.

Kudos to you.

Here's a mental test to see whether or not you are abiding by Levenson's definition. When you encounter a text in the Bible that shocks your sensibilities do you seek to react to it by defending what you believe or do you consider what that text says in its context irregardless of the conclusion?

I know Christians like to think there is to be found in the Bible a systematic theology, so they try very hard to systematize the statements in the Bible. But if one wants to be a critical scholar then the goal is to understand not defend. That's why critical scholars all agree there is no systematic theology found in the Bible, for starters. But such an admission goes a long way toward undermining the divine mind behind the texts themselves.


Anonymous said...

I detect a reoccurring theme with you though. You basically like the idea of the Outsider Test and you like this definition. But you don't like how they are applied.

Interesting. Perhaps you should tell us how to apply things you like rather than disagree with how people apply them.

Victor Reppert said...

I think the OTF, and the definition, are fine so long as we are testing ourselves, and not pointing fingers at other people. We know and understand our own thoughts in ways that we do not understand others.

I like the spirit behind the definition. I don't know if I would define it that way myself.

I would have to look at what Wright said, and what he meant by it, before I drew any conclusion about him.

Ad hominem fallacy avoidance means that once someone gives an argument, the focus has to be on the argument, and not the arguer. Is Wright believes something, we may question whether his authority is any basis for believing it. If he gives an argument, then it becomes a matter of evaluating his argument, and whether he fits some definition of a "critical scholar" becomes neither here nor there.

Victor Reppert said...

Naturalistic bias generates preferences, and even traditions, within the field of biblical studies. If someone transcends that in the interests of intellectual honesty, are they being critical?

Victor Reppert said...

Let's ask this question. Is Robinson's Redating the New Testament a work of critical scholarship.

Anonymous said...

I don't know about Robinson except that he never disavowed his book "Honest to God." I remember the confusion with both books. Hey, he just may be a provocateur for all we know, an attention getter.

Victor Reppert said...

It takes one to know one. :)

Anonymous said...


Victor Reppert said...

So, are you saying that you can be uncritical in your scholarship because of being motivated to shock people committed to a traditional, conservative view?

“I should agree with you that much of the late dating is quite arbitrary, even wanton, the offspring not of any argument that can be presented, but rather of the critic’s prejudice that, if he appears to assent to the traditional position of the early church, he will be thought no better than a stick-in-the-mud.”5

C. H. Dodd, one of the best-respected Bible scholars of the last generation.

Anonymous said...

You make me smile and then try to make a point I didn't agree to. I'm a provocateur but only in the sense that I don't mind negative attention. But when it comes to the arguments if Robinson argued for things just to see if he could get away with them then that is most emphatically not me.

By the way, regarding Dodd, in many ways I accept mainline not fringe scholarship, as I think you know by now. I'd have to look at what he means by the word "late" to see if I agree.

Mike Erich the Mad Theologian said...

From what I can see having read "Redating the New Testament", Robinson did not see it as contrary to "Honest to God" nor was simply writing things to shock people. Robinson is clearly not a theological conservative, but the fact that someone from so obviously a theological liberal as Robinson could reach the conclusions he reached in "Redating the New Testament" does call into question the unquestionable status of traditional liberal New Testament scholarship.