Friday, August 14, 2009

A Christian Academic

I present here a reflection on what I think it means to be a Christian academic. Simply stated, my scholarship is an expression of my faith and my faith is an expression of my scholarship. In my view, the two are inextricably related and cannot be separated. In an article I wrote not long ago, I suggested that New Testament scholarship in my generation requires a different tact than the one that had been handed down to us by our teachers. Even those of us who came out of confessionally conservative seminaries and graduate schools have been handed a method of biblical interpretation that believes that it not only must, but also that it can separate the scholar from the scholarship. Biblical scholarship of seemingly every theological stripe has asserted over the course of the last hundred-plus years that, in order to be considered credible, research must be free from confessional faith-based presuppositions and bias—a value-neutral scholarship. The cornerstone of this approach is the view that with the use of the historical-critical method, scholars can produce objective and scientific-like statements about Christianity origins and the New Testament that are based on evidence alone free from personal bias and subjectivity.

Clearly scholarly efforts within this approach have produced major advances in the study of early Christianity. One need only to think of the Copernican revolution known as the New Perspective on Paul in the last 30 years to see how New Testament studies has benefited from such methods. However, the strengths of the historical-critical method, and there are many, do not outweigh its weaknesses or false assumptions. The most glaring of the latter in my view is the idea that a confessional approach to Biblical research is antithetical to good historical inquiry. This view is both unwarranted and unrealistic. It is unwarranted, because, while I would not wish to pronounce all confessional scholarship as good historical research—there are many examples to the contrary, it has neither been demonstrated nor am I persuaded that in order to do good historical research, one must fence off confessionalism. And that is to say nothing of whether or not this is even possible. It seems to me that good historical scholarship is neither a result of confessionalism nor neutrality, if the latter even exists, but engagement with the sources and the ability to make sense of the data within its own historical setting. The predominant view is also unrealistic, because the view ignores the glaring reality that every scholar functions within some confession, whether this confession is the theological tenets of the church or of tradition criticism or of something else. There is no such thing as value-neutral scholarship.

Thus, I advocate a view of scholar and scholarship that is confessional in nature or value-based, by which I mean one that embraces faith-based presuppositions, although not necessarily Christian or even religious. As such, the scholar and her scholarship are humble and accountable within both her confessional community and within the wider scholarly community. Perhaps J. P. Meier’s ‘unpapal conclave’ of a confessional Catholic, Protestant, Jew and agnostic (and/or even an atheist) can be reintroduced with significant modification. In my approach this conclave would be locked up in the bowels of a library not until they achieved a ‘limited consensus’, but until they reach a mutual understanding of each other’s views; views based on their distinctive presuppositions and consequent procedures. This setting would not be any less scholarly of an endeavor as their views would be defendable and rooted in the history and culture of Second-Temple Judaism. Yet, rather than being forced to create a document that states the least common denominator, they were forced to listen to each other and learn from each other in the context of community; rather than check their convictions at the door and pursue consensus, they participate in full awareness of themselves and the others and pursue understanding; rather than debate in order to win, they discuss in order to understand, acknowledging that the truth is both self authenticating and convincing in the first instance when demonstrated in life.

For me, the most significant test of my scholarship is its impact on the community of faith, the church. My scholarship should be within the context of and accountable to my confessional community and should ultimately serve to further strengthen that community. At the present time I am a member of an evangelical non-denominational church in the suburbs of Chicago. While my wife and I are not tied to a denomination with an established tradition, I would characterize my community of faith with four adjectives; my faith is apostolic, catholic, Reformation-al and evangelical.

A Christian scholar is never (or at least should not be) over against the church, but functions as a member of Christ’s body and exercises his teaching gift for the building up of the body. While scholars should be given freedom to think, to ask questions and to push back on well-worn assumptions, we should always be mindful that our work is not an end in itself. But rather our work is the means to the end of bringing glory to God by extending his kingdom in the world.


Josh said...

Good thoughts, here. I think the point regarding presuppositions is especially important as we contemplate scholarship produced out of contrasting camps on the theological spectrum.

Sean said...


Andrew said...

Thanks for these thoughts, Joel.

Dave said...

v thoughtful, Joel, thanks! I'd like to see a copy of the article you wrote that you refer to at the beginning of this post, for a presentation I'm giving soon. can you tell me where can I find it?