Re: [asa] Methodological Atheism in Biblical Studies

From: Murray Hogg <>
Date: Thu Oct 02 2008 - 16:36:59 EDT

Hi David,

Writing as one engaged in biblical studies at post-grad level (and having thought long and hard about this very topic)...

I think the one is very easily embroiled in category errors in this discussion, and I think the comment you cite makes precisely that mistake. To put it bluntly Lenzi is constructing a false dichotomy between scholarship and faith when the two are neither opposites nor exclusive.

Rather, the opposite to scholarship is ignorance, and the opposite to faith is - well - faith of another sort. Where Lenzi goes wrong is to imply that the confessional scholar (i.e. one who approaches biblical studies from within a particular religious tradition) is first and foremost interested in bolstering his/her own theological pre-commitments AND that said scholar is prepared to ignore truth to further this end. But why accept such an assumption? And why accept the purported solution of "methodological atheism" when such a methodology is plainly NOT value neutral, but entails a clear metaphysical bias? To adopt such a stance is not to move from a position of faith to one of no faith but rather to move from one faith stance to another. Frankly, one only has to look at contemporary atheists to recognize that "methodological atheism" (which I presume follows from "metaphysical atheism" <smile>) does not entail either dispassionate neutrality nor scholarly rigour.
So, no, I don't think working with a dichotomy between scholarship and faith comes remotely close to helpful.

Furthermore, religion in general (hence Biblical Studies in particular) is not, and never can be, a matter of disinterested "scientific" study. It must always involve an existential commitment by and an existential challenge to the individual. This is true of the atheist as well as the religious believer. This point is nicely made by Gerhard Ebeling in "The Nature of Faith" (Collins, Fontana: 1951. trans. 1961), p. 10.

It would be inappropriate, even nonsensical, to put the question about the nature of Christian faith from curiosity or as a mere question of knowledge. It would likewise be meaningless to regard the question, say, of death merely as one which concerned my curiosity or my thirst for knowledge, and not as one which concerned me in the sense that I myself must die. Of course, I am not suggesting that this particular question has an absolutely special place. The circle of questions which concern man in his very being as man, and in which therefore the questioner himself is included, is a very large one. For the present we simply say that there are questions which we do not rightly see if we leave ourselves out of them, if, that is to say, we refuse the commitment which is part of the nature of these questions, if we are to be concerned with them in the way that is appropriate to them.

To my mind this draws our focus to the primary question: what exactly are we doing when we engage in biblical studies? If it is a a matter of "curiosity or...a mere question of knowledge" then Lenzi's "methodological atheism" might have a place - but is this REALLY the nature of the question at hand? I'd suggest not. Rather biblical studies is one of those questions which "we do not rightly see if we leave ourselves out of them".

Where Lenzi goes wrong, in my opinion, is that he simply doesn't approach the question from this perspective. Consider;

(1) atheists - like believers - bring their existential commitments to their biblical studies and hence are not as free of "static" as Lenzi would like us to believe. Indeed an atheistic approach, committed to "the hegemony of self-critical human autonomy" could imply evasion of the very existential challenge which the study of scripture is (in my view) supposed to involve;

(2) believers - like atheists - ought to face an existential challenge as a consequence of their biblical studies.

Both points amount to this: the purpose of the study of scripture is NOT merely to satiate idle curiosity, nor to gain greater knowledge, nor to bolster one's own precommitments (religious or otherwise) but to bring them into direct challenge by putting to the individual the questions of existence and meaning. Citing Ebeling (ibid, pp.12-13) once again;

<cite> is an undertaking which is both necessary and hazardous, to put the question about the nature of Christian faith. It is necessary because there can be no faith without understanding. It is hazardous because we might become aware how deep our misunderstanding and our lack of understanding go, whether we affirm the Christian faith or reject it. For this is the risk which one takes in raising this question. It is possible that on a closer examination things are different from what one had hitherto imagined. Ideas that we had thought to be self-evident could break up. Our attitude to the Christian faith and thereby our own existence could begin to move in a way that we did not like at all. A transformation in our thinking and understanding could be demanded which we would not know how to endure. Moreover, as I say, this is true for both groups, for the adherents as well as for the opponents of the Christian faith-not to forget the third group, the well-intentioned neutrals

. Everyone has his idea of what Christian faith is. This is the basis of his attitude. This idea must not be touched if one's attitude is neither to falter nor be revised. It is not only the adherents of the Christian faith who think they know all about it and therefore try to immunise themselves as far as possible from any further questioning. It is also true of the decided opponents of Christian faith that their position depends on a specific understanding of Christian faith. To question this understanding seems to them to be a tiresome suggestion, which is of course meaningless from the start. Even the great numbers of distant well-wishers of the Christian faith who readily admit that they understand little about it are indifferent or resigned or agnostic because they have reached a position in which they have basically settled the problem, or at any rate expect precious little from any more detailed questioning.

(as an aside, I leave the reader to ask how decisive a challenge the above might prove to Richard Dawkins and his ilk!)

Now, where I AGREE with Lenzi is that - for the religious believer - the existential challenge will often (but not exclusively) lie in a challenge to theological formulations as well as in challenges brought about by the unmasking of naive assumptions about biblical history. But the answer to this is NOT "methodological atheism." Rather, the answer is, on the one hand, to be aware that one's theology is not sacrosanct and that the purpose of biblical studies is to CHALLENGE and ADVANCE one's theological knowledge rather than entrench one's theological biases. And, on the other, to allow what we KNOW of history to inform one's biblical reading and faith commitments.

Worth mentioning here that we don't KNOW that miracles are impossible - either as scientists, or historians, or biblical scholars - nor do we, as believers, know whether such-and-such a miracle actually took place. And, frankly, we can NEVER make any determination on such questions APART FROM our precommitments. Applying the mask of "methodological atheism" or "scientific historical inquiry" might prove a very simple way of resolving the issue, but I'd argue that Biblical Studies aren't primarily about finding very simple ways of resolving issues. If anything, Biblical Studies are about sharpening the difficulties so as to unsettle our preconceptions and offer us an existential challenge. To avoid that challenge by appeal to ANY "stance" - whether that be religious or "scholarly" - is an exercise in futility. <End of Excursus>

Where I DISAGREE with Lenzi is in the naive assumption that atheists are free of "static" and that they therefore are better placed to approach scripture than the religious believer. Indeed, if truth be told I find this claim quite offensive in that it presumes that there is an inherent conflict between faith and history and that therefore I, as a believer, am forced to play fast and loose with history in order to maintain a faith stance. I find it equally offensive that Lenzi presumes that I study scripture in order to justify my current theological position and to avoid challenge to it. In short, I find it offensive that Lenzi takes the moral high ground in implying he engages in biblical studies with honesty and integrity, but I do not. The less said about all that, however, the better as my primary point is quite different. My primary point is to challenge the claim that "methodological atheism" is superior to all possible alternatives (and note the PLURAL - as I earlier

stated, the choice manifestly is NOT between either scholarship or faith here - one may be scholarly to various degrees, one always has faith commitments of different sorts). I challenge this claim on the basis that I disagree utterly with the theory that biblical studies is primarily about finding a metaphysically (and existentially) neutral point-of-view in order to construct metaphysically (and existentially) neutral theories. I consider this wrong in theory. And I consider it dangerously naive and mistake when attempted in practice. Rather, I think that biblical studies are primarily about uncovering ones metaphysical and existential point-of-view in order to correct their distortions.

Now, I personally will maintain in the strongest possible terms that such "uncovering" comes about NOT by reading scripture under "the hegemony of self-critical human autonomy" but by reading scripture under the influence of the Holy Spirit (i.e. by actually abandoning human autonomy - whether atheistically or religiously grounded). What is critical to understand here is that involving the Holy Spirit in one's biblical studies (as I consciously make the attempt to do - even when I am working at a scholarly level) actually makes a dogmatic faith stance impossible to maintain (see, again, Ebeling). But this point the "methodological atheists", by virtue of the assumptions (faith commitments?) which ground the very method they employ, can never hope to understand.

Murray Hogg
Pastor, East Camberwell Baptist Church, Victoria, Australia
Post-Grad Student (MTh), Australian College of Theology

David Opderbeck wrote:
> There is an interesting conversation on the Biblioblogs site between a couple of Biblical scholars about the role of faith in Biblical studies ( <>. The parallels to methodological naturalism and the role of faith in scientific studies is fascinating. Here is a key quote:
> Ideally, however, academic believers should tune out what you are
> calling "static," that is, their theological beliefs, in their
> academic work. (You suggested the metaphor!) That's my advice. They
> should practice methodological atheism when pursuing academic
> Biblical Studies. They should remove their theological commitments
> from their mind's throne and welcome the hegemony of self-critical
> human autonomy.
> Well, I'm not a Biblical scholar, but I heartily disagree with respect to Biblical scholarship, my own discipline of law, or any other discipline. Particularly with respect to Biblical scholarship, if Christian scholars take the Biblical text as scripture, how can they consider that "static" when studying what the Biblical text means? And, doesn't the same reasoning apply to the study of "nature" -- a term that Christians ultimately must contest in favor of "creation?"
> --
> David W. Opderbeck
> Associate Professor of Law
> Seton Hall University Law School
> Gibbons Institute of Law, Science & Technology

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Received on Thu Oct 2 16:37:12 2008

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