Yesterday, Brian LePort was kind enough to take time to respond to my recent critique of the field of biblical studies (click here for my original piece; click here for LePort’s response – it will really help to read both in order to understand this response). Today, in order to help the conversation continue to move forward, I would like to respond to his response. My original post contained two critiques, and LePort responded to them in the order that I listed them. I will use a similar model to continue to engage him.
Biblical Studies masquerading as science. LePort notes that there is a difference between an “overblown epistemological arrogance” and “really believing that one is correct.” He clarifies his second position by showing that it holds a level of uncertainty when he states that “I believe I can be wrong about what I think I know.” He continues to develop this line of thinking by suggesting that biblical studies is a “trade” rather than an art (my recommendation). I agree with his first sentiment – that there is a difference between total certainty and a high degree of certainty – but do not think that a science/trade paradigm is helpful. Here is why…
The terms science and trade represent two different types of categories in the common imagination. The term science represents a field, commonly contrasted with the liberal arts. Conversely, a trade is a job type – a craft (such as bricklayer, landscaper, plumber, et al) that must be learned through experience with someone more experienced. All of scholarship is a trade – methodology and survival skills in general are passed down from a senior scholar to a junior scholar. However, all of academia is not the field of science. I think that my use of the term art caused some confusion as it may lead one to think of artistic forms of expression – painting, sculpture, music – that are all considered to hold purely subjective value. So, I would like to clarify that by art I mean that biblical studies, as a field, is rightfully classified as a liberal art. This simple recognition allows those within the field to do exactly what LePort and I are asking – to recognize that the process of building a thesis involves considering all plausible explanations and choosing that which the scholar finds as the most compelling. A scholar within any liberal arts field must always recognize that, even though he/she thinks that he/she is correct (and must think this in order to maintain intellectual integrity), he/she must never claim full certainty in a position. Allow me to be clear: I am not asking for biblical studies to run out and declare itself to be a fully subjective field where all claims are given equal merit, regardless of their plausibility. I am simply asking for the field to maintain a self-awareness that it is not a science.
Concerning methodology, LePort caught me off guard by claiming that the field of biblical studies is simply a subset of the field of historical studies. I had not considered this position before. If this is really the case, then my second critique is moot, but my first critique is intensified. If biblical studies exists simply a subset of the field of history, then it must function under the awareness that it is a liberal art rather than a science.
Yet, I think that exceeding the historicist’s mandate will be impossible to avoid for the evangelical biblical scholar. Historicism tends to work best for the social historian because questions of meaning and veracity are not imported into contemporary discussions. They are valued only insofar as they are valued within the culture that is being studied. But biblical studies functions as a war ground for determining the meaning of the Scriptures for the contemporary culture. Bart Ehrman’s role as text critic by day and philosopher by night is a good example of this natural tendency. People are naturally concerned with determining the meaning of a text and then judging its veracity. At the point one considers meaning and veracity in this way, making value judgments, the mandate of historicism has been exceeded in the same way that Richard Dawkins often exceeds the mandate of physics by using it to make metaphysical claims. Crossing the boundary into issues of meaning inherently crosses over into the field of philosophy/theology. I understand that in order for SBL to work an epistemological convention must be affirmed by all to be able to work together – this tension exists in my field as well – but if this is the case, then the field really should change its name to “History of Early Christianity” or something of that nature. One cannot study the Bible without engaging philosophy and theology and, eventually, making value judgments.
However, in closing, I believe that this tendency to move from strict historicism to questions of meaning and veracity is a strength of the field that must be affirmed. I would like to end this response by once again pointing us to the question of “what now?” I still contend that the rightful place of the field of biblical studies is as the first part of a two-part process that uses theology as its interpretive second stage. I still believe that the move within biblical studies towards biblical theology implicitly agrees with me…although I also feel that biblical theology is an unnecessary exercise in repetitiveness. I invite your thoughts about my critique and, most importantly, about how you think that the field should move forward.