The Arrogance of Scholarship
There are in fact two things, science and opinion; the former begets knowledge, the latter ignorance.
Hippocrates, Law, Book 1
Ever since my conversion to Christ at the age of eight, I have been fascinated with the New Testament (NT). I devoured it daily and eventually decided to specialize in it, taking my doctorate in theology at the University of Basel in Switzerland, majoring in NT studies. My first published book, Paul, Apostle of Weakness, grew out of my Basel dissertation, and most of my subsequent books and journal articles have specialized in the NT. While I have immensely enjoyed my teaching and writing in the field over the last 27 years, I have noted with increasing distress a shift within the guild of NT scholarship from questions to answers, from curiosity to certainty, from modesty to pretentiousness. Now I find that I am distancing myself somewhat from my profession, occasionally preferring to use the pronoun “they” when referring to the NT guild. For me, there can be no pride associated with belonging to a group that is intent on theorizing about the NT under the guise of supposed “objective truth.”
My earliest mentors in the field of NT studies, Professors Bo Reicke and Markus Barth, taught by example the excitement of studying the NT and the importance of maintaining a clear distinction between knowledge and speculation. Despite their accomplishments, reputations, and status as full professors in a prestigious European university, they remained inquisitive, humble, and approachable. I can still remember Professor Reicke talking to me about the topic of NT source criticism, both its possibilities and its limitations. He was fond of stating that scholars should never engage in “group think,” but rather should carefully weigh and examine all issues in a cautious, scientific manner and remember that current knowledge is always partial and imperfect.
It was in 1984, while examining a widely used introductory textbook on source criticism, that I had my first glimpse of NT scholars acting as if they had access to some hidden fund of superior knowledge. The extreme confidence that the author and others like him placed in their theories disturbed me. It seemed that there was no room in their minds for doubts and no space for questions. I became wary of the accuracy of their judgments and concerned about the impact of their opinions on future generations of Bible students. When I began to examine systematically their findings regarding Markan priority (a theory that was being promulgated by them as a dogma), it became evident that personal beliefs and subjective theories, especially about the internal evidence (which by its very nature is highly subjective), influenced their conclusions more so than did any verifiable data. I later discovered that my findings were part of a growing body of scholarly literature that, at the time, was being used to challenge the almost patriarchal authority of NT source critics.
Later, as I began to do work in the area of NT textual criticism, I tended to accept the “universal findings” and “certain conclusions” of the scholarly guild. However, most of the facts used to support the currently reigning theory in this area seemed to me to be explainable just as easily on the basis of other theories. Again, as I began to publish my findings, I detected an unwillingness or inability to interpret the facts for what they were. I began to believe what others had suspected for a long time about NT studies: a great deal of what passes as attested theory is little more than speculation, varying widely in plausibility. The guild, with its exaggerated statements of fact, has lent substantial support to the words of Lincoln: “you can fool all of the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all of the time.”
When I was studying at the University of Basel, there was at least one common factor present in the entire theological faculty, namely, the general scientific commitment not to be fooled and not to fool anybody else. That skepsis, that passion not to be fooled and not to fool others, does not seem to be as fundamental a part of the scholar’s mental equipment as it was a half century ago. One the greatest marks of a good scholar is to be critical in evaluating evidence. I have, however, read numerous books in the field in which this critical mentality appears to be largely absent.
Wrapped in the aura of science, NT “experts” now claim that there is little we can actually know about the historical Jesus, that the Gospel miracles were impossible, that letters claiming to be written by Paul are pseudonymous or allonymous, that the Bible is mostly mythology, that the first Christians cared little for history, etc. Such theories do nothing more than blend the known, the believable, and the fantastic. With its starting point being “what is,” it frequently traverses these limits into the realm of “what if.” And it matters little whether one’s pet theory begins in a submersible and travels 20,000 leagues under the sea or with a space mission and becomes a trek to some far distant star.
As a means of sustaining its own thirst for new knowledge, the Scholarly Industry all too frequently delves into the world of “what if,” creating its own science fiction. This fiction is then espoused and perpetuated by the majority of experts in the name of “scholarly objectivity.” One is reminded of the saying in tobacco country: “You know what they say about smoking; it’s one of the leading causes of—statistics.”
All of this intellectual speculation probably makes no difference to God. There is no exalted height from which we may survey the truth without first committing ourselves to the One who called Himself “the Truth” (John 14:6). You cannot find No Man’s Land in the divine geography. If we are not for Him, we are against Him. It is impossible to be Neither, Nor.
The Word of God does no good unless it is mixed with faith (Hebrews 4:2). A critical attitude, ready to find flaws and pick fights, can get no benefit from the Bible. We must believe it and receive it for what it is, letting God be true and every man a liar. This means having a docile and receptive spirit that is ready not only to hear that Word, but to heed it.
April 15, 2003
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.