More discussion on Faith-Based Scholarship

SBL Forum: More discussion of Faith-Based Scholarship

Many people have written to Forum about Michael Fox’s article on Bible Scholarship and Faith-Based Study. In addition, Fox’s article has prompted discussions in the blogging community. Danny Zacharias has compiled an informal list of these discussions at Deinde.

Professor Fox argues that biblical scholarship, as true Wissenschaft, relies on evidence whose meaning and significance is not intentionally predetermined by the Weltanschauung of the scholar. Faith-based biblical study, which “deliberately imports extraneous, inviolable axioms” and does not ultimately rely on evidence, is therefore not real scholarship. The upshot of this view, according to Fox, is that “critical scholarship” can be differentiated from the ever-increasing litany of ethically suspect and/or ideologically motivated biblical interpretations. Although I sympathize with Fox’s ire toward interpretive solipsism and ethically repugnant fundamentalism, I find his positivistic conception of Bibelwissenschaft extremely problematic.

Fox’s claim that “scholarship rests on evidence” is essentially a reworked version of the positivist idea that meaning is linked to verifiability. For the positivist, an assertion is truly meaningful if and only if it is verifiable; similarly, for Fox, an interpretation is truly scholarship if and only if it pertains to verifiable evidence. Given Fox’s reliance on positivism, it should come as no surprise that his conception of scholarship displays the same self-referential incoherence that plagues the entire positivist project. Consider the claim that all “scholarship rests on evidence.” Is that a scholarly statement? If it is scholarly then, according to Fox, there should be some evidence to support it; but of course there can be no verifiable evidence for a normative claim like “scholarship rests on evidence.” Hence, Fox’s programmatic statement of what constitutes scholarship is not itself scholarly, but rather a non-scholarly import! Fox’s conception of Bible scholarship is therefore open to the exact same critique leveled against faith-based study: “Any discipline that deliberately imports extraneous, inviolable axioms into its work belongs [not] to the realm [of] scholarship.” And here the self-referential incoherence is clear: Scholarship, as Fox envisions it, does not belong to the realm of scholarship.

All of this is to say that Bibelwissenschafthas its own inviolable axioms and in no way constitutes a realm of scientific objectivity or “real” scholarship, as Fox imagines. The real question as I see it is not whether Wissenschaft is compatible with faith-based study, but whether we should strive for a scientific perspective on the Bible at all. What is gained by Fox’s Bibelwissenschaft? We certainly do not need it in order effectively to critique fundamentalist interpretations of scripture, nor is it required to combat those who “justify their biases by the rhetoric of postmodern self-indulgence.” Additionally, if we deny faith-based Bible study a place at the academic table, we run the risk of restricting the benefits of biblical scholarship to a relatively small esoteric group. I would much rather include faith-based study in the academy (within reason), so that we might confront harmful interpretations head-on.

Adam Wells, Yale University

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