is faith necessary to understand the Bible? was Re: [asa] a creationist on the hiddenness of God

From: Cameron Wybrow <>
Date: Mon May 11 2009 - 02:41:02 EDT


In two of your recent posts, you've made some good points about the way that
the Bible is studied in the academy, ones which I can verify from

A good deal of modern Biblical scholarship, from the 19th-century on, has
taken as its premise that supernatural events just don't happen. At first,
such claims tended to be narrowed to Old Testament miracle stories, leaving
the New Testament untouched. (This is understandable, given that many of
the early Biblical scholars were teaching in German seminaries which
required professions of Christian faith.) Nonetheless, over time the New
Testament proved not to be immune, and you later have scholars like Renan,
who just assume without proof that miracles do not happen, and interpret the
life of Jesus as if they never did. There have continued to be good New
Testament scholars, even in secular universities, who maintain the divine
inspiration of the Bible and even accept most of the miracles at face value.
But in my experience, in both secular universities and in seminaries of the
"mainstream" denominations, such scholars are increasingly a minority. Of
course, my observations may reflect the more secular general culture of
Canada, but your note reminds me that "the Jesus Seminar" is geographically
centered in the U.S.A., so I suspect the phenomenon is widespread.

Another thing you have to take into account is schizophrenia. Many
genuinely Christian professors of New Testament -- and here I'm referring to
the Christians who teach in secular religion departments, and who publish
mainly in the great organs of secular scholarship, not to those who teach
and publish exclusively or mainly in more obviously sectarian or religious
venues -- studiously keep out of their articles and books all claims which
would not be accepted by the mainstream of Biblical scholarship (which
includes many Jews, agnostics and atheists). So it is often hard to tell
what a professor of New Testament believes about the Deity of Jesus, the
historicity of the Resurrection, or Biblical inspiration, based on his or
her writings for the Harvard or Oxford University Press. Such professors
want to be accepted as "good Biblical scholars" according to the canons of
secular scholarship, and tend to express their views fully only in the
private moments or in their Church life; or, if they express their views in
their classrooms, they generally bend over backwards to make sure that they
are not to be understood as proselytizing, and to affirm that secular
conclusions are just as valid as religious ones, from a scholarly point of
view. For such Christian professors, their theological views proper become
an optional private add-on to their "scientific" views, and therefore can be
withheld whenever that seems to make working with secular colleagues easier.
So there emerges a sort of double-truth notion: the truths that can be
ascertained by secular scholarship, i.e., by the use of assumptions granted
by Christians, Jews, agnostics and atheists alike; and the truths which are
asserted by Christians qua Christians. The first set of truths tilt
strongly toward a de facto atheism, but they are the lingua franca of
Biblical "science" in the
Oxford-Harvard-Cornell-Chicago-Columbia-Yale-Toronto religious studies
world. Thus, there is a sort of "methodological naturalism" practiced by
some Christian New Testament scholars, in which no assumption of divine
inspiration is made. Were this form of MN not practiced, it would be
impossible for Christian and non-Christian NT scholars to work together
without directly addressing each other's private theological positions, and
since that is considered bad manners in the academic world of religious
studies (and again, I'm speaking of religious studies, not theology proper),
the Christian NT scholars of the sort specified adopt the atheist/agnostic
playing field for the bulk of their scholarship.

One of the difficulties I am having with George Murphy's position -- and I
take it for granted that George is a sincere Christian who believes that the
Bible is inspired, so I am not questioning his motivation -- is that I don't
think it's all that easy to accept the key premises of modern Biblical
scholarship and then "control" their results by an appeal to the Trinity or
to Christ crucified or to any other such principle. Modern Biblical
scholarship tends to break through any such theological controls placed upon
it. And I don't think that this is simply a result of atheist Biblical
scholars going beyond what "Biblical science" can justify; I think it is
inherent in the methods of Biblical scholarship itself. You can't be a
modern Biblical scholar without questioning the validity of certain
traditional interpretations of the texts; and that means you can't be a
modern Biblical scholar without demanding the freedom to criticize, say,
Luther's reading of Paul. Similarly, as modern Biblical scholarship has now
universally accepted the principle that Christianity cannot be understood
without knowledge of its Jewish roots, modern Biblical scholarship cannot be
legitimately prevented from inquiring into Paul's understanding of "the
Law". Now suppose a very good, very sensitive, very careful Biblical
scholar concludes that Paul misunderstood "the Law". What then? The
interpretive control of the Church over Biblical scholarship cannot be
sustained in such a case, because the Biblical scholar in question has in
effect decided that the Church made a major error very early on, by
accepting Paul's misunderstanding of the Law. (There is in fact a
world-class Pauline scholar who has argued this.) And the chain of events
which have led to such potentially destructive Biblical scholarship flows
directly from Enlightenment notions of Biblical texts, of progress in
religious thought, of historical approaches to religion, etc., much of which
George accepts.

I am not saying that I have any answer to this problem, because I do not.
But simply as an observer of the academic scene, let me state that I do not
believe that modern Biblical scholarship will brook any interference by the
Church, any more than neo-Darwinism will. If we say to biologists, "You
have the Church's blessing to ask the question, 'Could human beings have
emerged through a random process?', and to answer it in the affirmative, if
that is where the evidence leads", can we say with a straight face to
Biblical scholars: "You may not answer the question 'Has Paul misunderstood
the Law?' in the affirmative, even if that is what the best modern
scholarship on 1st-century Judaism suggests"? George appears to grant to
biology an autonomy that he is not willing to grant to philological and
historical Biblical scholarship, and I cannot for the life of me see how
such a distinction can be maintained once the Rubicon of the Enlightenment
has been crossed.



George you are quite right. However, his dealing with Scripture was his
starting point with supposedly no further assumptions made, which we know is
not possible. For instance, he related how Scripture would lead to doubt the
virgin birth. Of course, from my standpoint, the virgin birth is peanuts for
a Creator; however, he would not accept such logic.

This professor of religion may be not typical of the formal or academic
theologians but it seems that the whole Jesus Seminar group seems to
represent the views of modern theologians. Is this so?

Of course, you did not indicate if a starting point with the notion of the
existence of the supernatural is necessary for good, or better correct,
Biblical exegesis.



I was talking to a Greek professor of religion from our campus who studies
the New Testament. I realized the difference between formal or academic
theology and the theology that results from faith. Surely, the data is the
same, viz. Scripture, however the prior information that we analyze the data
with, is very different. His approach was based on not inferring anything
supernatural from the data, whereas I supposed from the outset that there is
a supernatural aspect to Nature with humans being little supernatural
beings, with God the Big Supernatural Creator. That is to say, humans have
some aspects of the supernatural but we ourselves are not Devine. Obviously,
the conclusions we arrive at is totally different. Who is right?


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Received on Mon May 11 02:42:26 2009

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