Friday, May 11, 2012

On Biases and "True Scholarship"

There is a good exchange of ideas under Nick Norelli’s post, The Idol of Scholarship and Academic Naivety.

G. Kyle Essary writes:

“It’s common to hear now:

“‘I used to be a poor, dumb fundamentalist like many of you. I was a ‘true believer’ and even served in a church, but now I have studied the facts without any bias. Now, I only read the best scholarship and only interact with respected scholarly work.’

“Isn’t this fundamentalism? We have a fundamental set of beliefs about history, metaphysics, etc. and all other arguments are excluded by definition. In fact, they are not only excluded, but ridiculed.

“I studied at a school that only valued ‘true academic scholarship,’ and the mere mention of an evangelical received scorn and comments about how we should strive to avoid fundamentalists in our research efforts. We were also scorned from reading classical scholarship. In fact, the rule was that anything over 80 years old could not be cited in a paper to support our point, unless we were citing it as a piece of historical perspective. We were encouraged to interact with the ‘real movers and shakers’ who were turning the entire paradigm of Christianity upside down.

“If you mentioned Bruce Waltke with a Ph.D. from Harvard and a Th.D. from DTS then you were a fundy and should be reading better works. Yet if you mentioned John Shelby Spong who only has an M.Div., then you were ‘on the leading edge of theological thought.’ It wasn’t the credentials or the ideas that mattered as much as falling into a certain paradigm. Thankfully, at the evangelical school I later attended, we studied a broader spectrum including radicals, moderates and conservatives.”

And Nick responds:

“You hit the nail on the head. I’ve mentioned in a couple of reviews of Andreas Kösternberger’s books how impressed I am with the breadth of his reading and interaction, which is quite common for conservative evangelicals, yet surprisingly uncommon for their counterparts to the left. Confessing scholarship is written off and ridiculed as ‘apologetics’ while skeptical scholarship is ‘critical’ even when it shows little evidence of critical thinking!”

I can identify with parts of this.  There is a sense in which conservative evangelical students are talked down to at non-evangelical universities, and evangelical scholarship is suspected.  I often heard the “I used to be a right-wing evangelical, but I outgrew that stage” testimony at schools that I attended.  Moreover, a professor once told me that I should be careful when reading F.F. Bruce on account of Bruce’s evangelical bias.  And yet, it’s interesting that this same professor recommended N.T. Wright to a student, while he rebuked me for citing Bishop Spong in a paper (since Spong is a popularizer).  But different people have different experiences.

I can also see Nick’s point that evangelical scholarship interacts with a broad range of books and biblical scholarship.  I think that about Ben Witherington’s scholarly works, which I have started to read lately.  I believe that it’s important to read broadly precisely because scholars have bias.  A minimalist scholar may mention a detail that a maximalist scholar may leave out, and vice-versa.  For me personally, however, I try not to approach the Bible when doing scholarship with the presupposition that it is inerrant (on the one hand) or always flawed and historically inaccurate (on the other hand).  In my opinion, it’s important to try to be open-minded (not that I succeed at this).


  1. My sense is that spotty, sloppy or non- scholarship is so common to all sides that none of the sides can 'own' scholarship.


Search This Blog