Faith-Based Wissenschaft: An Oxymoron?

Michael V. Fox has a thought provoking essay at the most recent SBL Forum entitled, “Bible Scholarship and Faith-Based Study: My View.” While I have the utmost respect for Fox as a scholar (his various works on the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible are absolutely second to none), I am not sure I agree with his bold statement “faith-based study has no place in academic scholarship” (see Danny Zacharias’s reflections at Deinde, as well as James Crossley’s posts here and here).

On the one hand, I’m not sure I like the implication that “faith-based scholarship” (or Wissenschaft) is an oxymoron. While I would agree that any scholarship that presumes its conclusions is methodologically problematic (and borders on disingenuous), faith-based scholarship does not necessarily have to fall in this category (though some certainly does). Furthermore, I would think that secular Wissenschaft could learn a lot from a lot of faith-based scholarship as well as other ideological approaches. As Peter Donovan has recently noted, “the scientific study of religion can ill afford to insulate itself from the thinking of others interested in the same subject-matter, merely because they may hold very different views about theory and method” (“Neutrality in Religious Studies,” in The Insider/Outsider Problem in the Study of Religion: A Reader [ed. Russell T. McCutcheon; New York: Cassell, 1999], 245). What is perhaps most important for any approach to biblical studies is that the approach is academically sound, methodologically rigorous, and up front about any and all presuppositions.

On the other hand, Fox’s point has some validity in that he is not dismissing the “scholarship of persons who hold a personal faith.” In fact, he notes that “there are many religious individuals whose scholarship is secular and who introduce their faith only in distinctly religious forums.” Basically what I understand Fox as saying is that “Wissenschaft” employs a “secular, academic, religiously-neutral hermeneutic” and any scholars who want to engage in biblical Wissenschaft needs to play by the agreed upon rules. Thus, Wissenschaft becomes a “middle discourse” by which people of different faiths and/or no faith can engage in scholarly discourse.

This debate within biblical studies is paralleled by a larger debate within the discipline of religious studies. Since the end of the nineteenth century, the discipline of religious studies has typically been understood to be the “value-neutral” and “objective” study of religions, while theology is the confessional or particularistic study of one religion (see, for example, Donald Wiebe, “The Politics of Religious Studies,” CSSR Bulletin 27/4 [November 1998] 95-98). This distinction played an important part in the establishment of religious studies departments in a number of universities in Europe and North America — and especially Canadian public universities (interestingly, not all educational institutions thought that the distinction was necessary). This traditional demarcation has been challenged on some fronts in light of the postmodern recognition that there is no real objective, value-neutral study of religion (or any other subject for that matter), and thus the only differences between the disciplines are the rules agreed upon by those working within them — the rules of the game, so to speak.

(For an interesting discussion of postmodern theories of religious studies, see the interaction between Garrett Green, “Challenging the Religious Studies Canon: Karl Barth’s Theory of Religion,” Journal of Religion 75 [1995] 473-86; Russell T. McCutcheon, “My Theory of the Brontosaurus: Postmodernism and ‘Theory’ of Religion,” Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 26/1 [1997] 3-23, and William E. Arnal, “What if I Don’t Want to Play Tennis?: A Rejoinder to Russell McCutcheon on Postmodernism and Theory of Religion,” Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 27/1 [1998] 61-68; see also McCutcheon’s response, “Returning the Volley to William E. Arnal” on pp. 67-68 of the same issue).

In practice, religious studies (and biblical studies) in the Canadian public university context tends to be the scientific study of religion which does not privilege one religious discourse above another. Theology, on the other hand, is typically defined as the study of one religion from a confessional standpoint. So in this sense, I agree with Fox that there is a valid difference between faith-based scholarship and secular scholarship. But the question remains “what rules are we going to play by?” While I appreciate Fox’s point, I am skeptical about whether there is any scholarship that is truly “objective” and “value-neutral.” And any scholar who suggests that their work is “objective” and “value-neutral” would perhaps be more at home in the 19th century! I for one live in both worlds and produce scholarship for a variety of contexts. Some of my research is for the broader academy and employs methods appropriate for such work, while some of my study is for the community of faith to which I belong and employs a slightly different approach. I hope, however, that all of my research may stand up under the scrutiny of scholars who take different approaches and have different presuppositions than I.

Let me end with the final exchange between David and his Rebbe from Chaim Potok’s masterful book In the Beginning (Ballantine, 1997; Buy from or

  • Rebbe: “… Are you telling me you will not be an observer of the commandments?”
  • David: “I am not telling the Rebbe that.”
  • Rebbe: “What are you telling me?”
  • David: “I will go wherever the truth leads me. It is secular scholarship, Rebbe; it is not the scholarship of tradition. In secular scholarship there are no boundaries and no permanently fixed views.”
  • Rebbe: “Lurie, if the Torah cannont go out into your world of scholarship and return stronger, then we are all fools and charlatans. I have faith in the Torah. I am not afraid of truth.”

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5 Responses to Faith-Based Wissenschaft: An Oxymoron?

  1. Jim Linville says:

    I stand on the other side of the divide, but I had a number of the same issues with Fox’s article. Although I see my work addressing expressly a secular crowd I have learded tons from ‘faith-based’ scholars, students etc.

    What I wonder about is exactly when does the importation of “extraneous, inviolable axioms” occur? It seems to me to be a huge grey area between being influenced by ones subjectivity and “importing” extraneous axioms. Even describing the situation like this calls attention to the value judgments implicit in this area of critical reflection on scholarship.

    On the one hand, I do get quite frustrated when I read the occassional statment in scholarly work which suggests that Biblical studies should specifically address theological issues for the modern community of faith. I don’t see it as my job at all. On the other hand, I do not see it as the job of theologians or faith-based exegetes to serve my secular interests if they wish to consider themselves ‘scholars. Perhaps the two ways of looking at the Bible are more separate or self-contained than we often allow, but there has to along with that some way of learning from one another without implying that one has relied on ‘non-scholarly’work.

    Jim Linville

  2. Alan says:

    Thank you for how well you articulated your perspective.

  3. dave beldman says:

    Professor Williams,
    I am surprised that your post (really, Fox’s article) has not generated more discussion on your blog. I have offered some of my initial thoughts on the matter over at my blog. Perhaps part of the issue is the difference between biblical studies or devotionals intended for popular audiences and Christian academic biblical study. For the former, I am thinking about the series put out by P&R “The Gospel According to the Old Testament.” These are written by capable Christian scholars (Longman and Dillard have both written one and Boda is coming out with one soon), but are not really scholarly works. On the other hand, these scholars have done distinctly evangelical work intended for scholarly audiences. Genre is important here. Does Fox really think that the work done by someone like Gordon Wenham or Anthony Thiselton is not legitimate scholarship?!

  4. Thanks for the kind words, Alan.

    Hey Jim… you raise what is probably the most important question: when faith-based scholars allow “extraneous, inviolable axiomsâ€? to mold their research, does that preclude it from the category of good scholarship? (Of course, we shouldn’t assume that only faith-based scholars have “extraneous, inviolable axiomsâ€?). An example from a recent blog post will perhaps suffice: what role should the conservative evangelical doctrine of innerancy play in textual criticism? If one allows innerancy to play a part, I would consider this to be an example of when an “extraneous, inviolable axiomâ€? is allowed to play an inappropriate role in what is a historical question. So it ultimately comes down to method and being explicit of one’s method so that others can understand and evaluate your work on its basis. On the other hand, I don’t think a presupposition, e.g., of an open universe would disqualify one’s work from being good scholarship any more than presupposing a closed universe would automatically make qualify it.

    In response to your question, Dave, I would think that many scholars are not aware of other scholar’s faith perspective so they wouldn’t automatically discredit their work — especially if their work employs a middle discourse and a historical critical method. It would be the work that is more addressed to the concerns of a faith community which would not fit the criteria that Fox assumes — but I don’t think that Fox would say these works are not scholarly or not worthwhile to read, it’s just that they are not traditional historical critical scholarhip (which is what I think Fox means when he employs the term Wissenschaft).

  5. Jim Linville says:

    I think we agree that having presuppositions does not disqualify one’s work from the realm of ‘scholarship’. I have presuppositions, but I’m more likely to be disqualified because of my apparent ‘post-suppositions’, i.e., conclusions that don’t ‘follow’.

    I have a very hard time defining ‘scholarship’ (harder time doing it…). I’ve learned lots of good stuff from all sorts of “people of presupposition”.

    I sometimes think we should qualify ‘scholarship’ more to avoid there being a firmer distinction between “scholarship” (i.e., secular scholarship), and “faith-based bible study”.

    But this will too easily categorize people and prevent a freer flow of ideas. I have read a number of books and articles by people who “import” axioms etc. I cannot accept. Sometimes I find there is not much in the whole study I agree with because of that on the other hand there are probably more times I find a lot to learn despite that one point of disagreement. In historical reconstructions, the “innerancy” position can be a very thorny issue. In my stuff, more literary oriented work, it is much less an ‘obstacle’ to getting a lot out of a commentary or article.


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