BAR 38:04, Jul/Aug 2012
Biblical Views: Critical Biblical Scholarship—What’s the Use?
I was surprised to learn recently that the mainstream of contemporary Christian philosophy has little use for critical Biblical scholarship. Alvin Plantinga, probably the most eminent member of the guild of Christian philosophers, writes:
There is no compelling or even reasonably decent argument for supposing that the procedures and assumptions of [historical Biblical criticism] are to be preferred to those of traditional Biblical commentary.1
He believes that interpreting the Bible by means of historical Biblical criticism is like “trying to mow your lawn with a nail scissors or paint your house with a toothbrush; it might be an interesting experiment if you have time on your hands.”2 But it’s basically a waste of time and effort.
Why would a professor of philosophy disparage critical Biblical scholarship? Is it not an academic field with well-honed methods and criteria comparable to his own? Well, apparently not. Plantinga is an evangelical Calvinist speaking for those for whom the Bible is inerrant and thus immune from reasoned inquiry. He holds that “Scripture is inerrant: the Lord makes no mistakes; what he proposes for our belief is what we ought to believe.”3 The right way to read the Bible, he believes, is by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, which teaches one how to comprehend the Bible’s inerrant teaching. All well and good, but this is a matter of faith, not reasoning. It starts with the answer, not with the question.
I have no qualm with anyone’s faith, but I think it’s important to stress that critical Biblical scholarship does not operate by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This is what the term “critical” means. The word comes from Greek krinein, which means “to judge, decide, discriminate.” A critical scholar is one who is able to make distinctions based on careful study of the evidence and by appeal to reasonable arguments and criteria.
One of the key strategies of critical scholarship is methodological doubt. A critical scholar does not accept the conclusions of authorities or tradition but rather submits them to doubt. Only a position that survives the scrutiny of methodological doubt can be regarded as reliable, and even then it is subject to future testing. In this fashion, critical knowledge builds up reliable knowledge, which remains forever corrigible. This strategy was elegantly formulated by an early modern advocate of science, Francis Bacon: “If we begin with certainties, we shall end in doubts; but if we begin with doubts, and are patient in them, we shall end in certainties.”4
This process—beginning with doubt and ending with reliable knowledge about the Bible—differs from Plantinga’s philosophy, which begins with a commitment to Biblical inerrancy. For him, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit is the starting point, not methodological doubt. As John Calvin stated: “The testimony of the Spirit is more excellent than all reason.”5 The inward testimony of the Holy Spirit (as interpreted by religious authorities like Calvin) is what counts.
Yet, interestingly, Calvin did not think that the Bible is inerrant. And he had a high opinion of reason and common sense. He had no trouble admitting where the Bible is incorrect or doesn’t make sense according to the historical and scientific knowledge of his time. As Church historian Roland Bainton observes, for Calvin, Luther and other Reformers, “inspiration did not mean inerrancy or impeccability.”6 Calvin pointed out where Biblical passages reflect the erroneous views of “the humble and unlearned.”7 And Luther remarked that such errors “do not bother me particularly.”8 So why do such errors bother Plantinga?
I don’t know the answer to this question. But I do know that this difficulty makes a difference. Many evangelicals who agree with Plantinga regard critical Biblical scholarship as a waste of time. But if inerrancy is itself a relatively recent position—motivated by the anti-modernism of late-19th and early-20th-century fundamentalists—then perhaps more people should be open to the usefulness of critical Biblical scholarship. Some evangelical Biblical scholars are actively promoting this option.9 For them, critical Biblical scholarship is an important tool, more like my beloved hand-propelled reel mower than a nail scissors. It takes work and practice, but it gets results. As Calvin and Luther would agree, there’s no good reason to be hostile toward good scholarship.