Can Believers Be Bible Scholars? A Strange Debate
- Monday, March 27, 2006
Michael W. Fox doesn't believe that faith-based scholarship of the Bible is possible--and he wants to see such scholars marginalized in the larger world of scholarship. In an essay posted at the Web site for the Society of Biblical Literature [SBL], Fox argues, "In my view, faith-based study has no place in academic scholarship, whether the object of study is the Bible, the Book of Mormon, or Homer. Faith-based study is a different realm of intellectual activity that can dip into Bible scholarship for its own purposes, but cannot contribute to it."
That is a shocking claim, but Fox is simply asserting what many others in the academy have thought for a very long time. Even if the secularization of the larger academy is a fait accompli, Fox and many others are concerned that the majority of scholars studying the Bible are believers of some sort, mostly Christians and Jews involved in the serious study of the Bible.
Fox teaches at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and he is unsparing in his denunciation of what he calls faith-based scholarship. In reality, what he means is that scholars who study the Bible as believers forfeit any claim to scholarship. Could there be any more telling evidence of what the secularization of the academy has wrought?
The naivete of Fox's approach is self-evident, but he apparently fails to see that even an atheist brings a certain "faith" to the work of scholarship. As he sees it, Jewish scholars who would wish to publish academic research on the Old Testament are simply to be discounted because they may well believe in the existence of deity and may see the Old Testament writings as sacred. Beyond this, Christians are to be discounted wholesale, and Christians who engage in biblical scholarship are to be denied the status of scholars, regardless of which testament is their focus of study.
"Faith-based study of the Bible certainly has its place," Fox concedes--but those places are "synagogues, churches, and religious schools, where the Bible (and whatever other religious material one gives allegiance to) serves as a normative basis of moral inspiration or spiritual guidance." His next statement serves as the theme for his entire essay: "This kind of study is certainly important, but it is not scholarship--by which I mean Wissenschaft, a term lacking in English that can apply to the humanities as well as the hard sciences, even if the modes and possibilities of verification in each are very different."
Look carefully at Fox's next sentence: "Any discipline that deliberately imports extraneous, inviolable axioms into its work belongs to the realm of homiletics or spiritual enlightenment or moral guidance or whatnot, but not scholarship, whatever academic degrees its practitioners may hold."
This is where Fox's own lack of intellectual honesty brings his argument to a standstill. Does he really believe that he, or anyone else for that matter, comes to the task of scholarship with absolutely no "extraneous" presuppositions? No, Fox concedes that "everyone has presuppositions and premises," but he insists that, for scholars such as himself, "these are not inviolable." He continues, "Indeed, it is the role of education to teach students how to recognize and rest their premises and, when necessary, to reject them."
Of course, this simply begs the question. Why is the presumption of atheism any less inviolable than belief in Jesus Christ as Lord? In its own way, the same argument holds true for assertions of agnosticism, since the true agnostic argues that the question of God's existence simply cannot be answered. That is about as inviolable an axiom as one is likely to encounter.
Give Fox his due, he attempts to exclude believers from the academy with fair warning. "Faith-based Bible study is not part of scholarship even if some of its postulates turn out to be true." Thus, even if the believing scholar makes a scholarly argument that non-believers find convincing, that work is still to be denied the status of scholarship, simply because the person is neither agnostic nor atheist.
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