Thursday, September 17, 2009

Confessional vs. historical-critical? The problem with labels

Over on the Forbidden Gospels blog, April DeConick has a characteristically interesting post on The Never Ending Confusion about Perspective. As someone who approaches the New Testament and Christian Origins as a historian, there is plenty that I agree with in April's post, but I can't say that I am too keen on the label "confessional scholarship", especially where it is used as a contrast with "historical-critical scholarship".

The difficulty is that many of those scholars who are also people of faith work with a historical-critical approach. Indeed, the historical-critical approach is something that developed out of discussion within Christianity, and among Christian scholars. It is profoundly indebted to the Reformation and most of the pioneering historical work on the New Testament and Christian Origins was done by Protestants who combined a critical, questioning perspective on their faith with an interest in the historical roots of that faith. Rudolf Bultmann, for example, was a "confessing scholar" at the same time as being a pioneer of the most robust kind of "historical-critical scholarship". Indeed, as a member of the Confessing Church, one might say that his historical-critical scholarship cohered with his Christian stance against the Nazi regime. And I can think of many, many scholars today who are sophisticated, critical historians of early Christianity who at the same time remain within Christianity.

One of my concerns about labels like this, especially where they are played off against one another as polar-opposites, is they can distort the picture of contemporary scholarship and play into the hands of those who misrepresent our field. April's earlier post on Robert Eisenman is a case in point. April criticizes Eisenman for incorrectly characterizing her as a "conservative" on the grounds of her views on the Gospel of Judas. I quite agree with April's concern about Eisenman's ill-informed article, but it may show that ultimately these silly labels do more harm than good. James Crossley has often experienced the same kind of thing -- labelled as a conservative because of his apparently conservative views on the dating of Mark's Gospel.

I am not, of course, suggesting that April herself would use terms like "confessional scholar" in an indiscriminate fashion, but I want to suggest some caution about our adopting terms that could play into the agendas of those with whom we disagree.


Unknown said...

Just posted similar sentiments in a reply to the "other" (i.e. confessional side) on my blog earlier today.

Doug said...

Dare one suggest she is using it to marginalise those she disagrees with?

Actually I've posted a rather different reflection and response to her myself

Gail D said...

Mark, I’ve read April’s, Greg’s, and Doug’s comments, as well as your own, and understand your problem with labels. If we avoid using the kinds of labels that April proposes, since they could be misused, then we still have to deal with the problem inherent in the plasticity of the word ‘historian.’

Part of the reason that biblical scholarship is and remains a different discipline from strictly historical scholarship (in the general sense) is that professional historians generally might not be asking the same kinds of questions that biblical scholars do. Professional historians are certainly expected to deal with more evidence than just ancient texts and their transmission. I’m not saying that biblical scholarship can’t do its best to be historical in its methodologies, but because so much of it (including your example of Bultmann) arises out of specific theological backgrounds, the definition of what it means to 'do history' in religious studies has to be asked.

Dr. Jan Shipps, a non-Mormon who is perhaps the leading scholar of U.S. Latter-day Saint history, makes it clear from her body of work that she brackets certain areas as being outside of her area of interest as an LDS historian. Openly making that kind of distinction might also be helpful in biblical studies.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks for the interesting comments, Greg, Doug and Gail.

The more I reflect on April's post, the more I wonder whether in fact what we have in our field is something we ought to celebrate. Confessional perspectives (for want of a better term) can challenge misunderstandings and distortions of the literature by those who have a self-consciously secularizing agenda. Likewise, to have those in the guild who do not have any kind of Christian affiliation is hugely helpful in keeping those with a faith perspective honest and accountable. Perhaps our unique identity, with this alliance between scholars of such differing perspectives, is a healthy one?

JohnO said...

I have to agree that labels, at least in my experience, have had a very negative side-affect. In the past I'd used them to exclude the other and negate their experience and understanding. In a karmic way, as I pursue more theological education that is now happening to against me.

I think the confessional/historical-critical is a strange way to break it down. When it comes down to it, the early disciples (for the sake of argument) were confessional about a historical event. It takes us, removed in time, a critical approach to reconstruct that historical event. However, whether we confess in that historical event belongs to each of us.

I am at the point where I am using the historical-critical method to inform my confession.

(first year MTS student, btw)

Juliette said...

I can't pretend to be familiar with the ins and outs of Biblical scholarship, but I would agree that labels like those you describe sound ultimately unhelpful. My field (ancient myth and religion) is dominated by people with no religion themselves, and I suspect our academic studies would benefit from a little insight from someone who actually practices a religion (like me) - but as a young scholar trying to build a reputation, I have so far hesitated to say so for fear of being dismissed out of hand! said...

Eisnman actually wrote 'more conservative', which, for example could put her in the liberal band.

Gail D said...

Mark, a few additional thoughts:

"Agenda" has become a rather loaded term these days. It implies some kind of imposed-from-outside collective guidance that I personally don't see among scholars of most disciplines (you've no doubt heard the joke about how trying to get scholars to agree on anything is like trying to herd cats). I don't see how playing by the rules of the historical discipline constitutes promoting a secularizing agenda. (This is where it might be interesting to hear from your colleagues in the history department at Duke.) The concern about a perceived 'secularizing agenda' appears to be an internal concern of some within the field of biblical scholarship.

You asked, "Perhaps our unique identity, with this alliance between scholars of such differing perspectives, is a healthy one?"

I agree that it can be, but with a caveat. To be "scholarly," conversation must be two-way (or more!) in nature, and our ability to converse is based on our being able to understand others' language, viewpoints, and suppositions. On your recent "Online Office Hours," you would not have been able to respond so graciously to the question about whether or not the concept of "penal substitution" can be found in the Bible unless you understood the shorthand of the questioner (or put another way, his/her underlying ideological perspective). Not all recent discussion in our field (not just in the blogosphere; I'm also thinking of professional meetings) demonstrates that level of acceptance and appreciation of the perspective of the 'other.'

Mark Goodacre said...

Geoff: agree with you -- and that "more conservative" is quite different from "conservative".

Thanks, Gail, for those very helpful thoughts.