Is Evangelical Scholarship Academically Rigorous?
If you have clicked through to read a blog post raising a question about the academic rigor of evangelical scholarship, chances are good you already have your own answer to the question. But I recognize that such a polarizing question requires many nuances, qualifiers, and subtleties. For example, are we talking about American evangelicalism or its British variety? Are we talking about the “Big-tent” model of Fuller Seminary or the more exclusionary version championed by certain high-profile so-called “evangelical intellectuals?”
I want to focus specifically on two dissertations turned “academic” monographs recently published by Wipf and Stock, a publisher with a growing reputation for publishing books of uneven quality. Of course, this unevenness might be expected when a publishing house that employs 25 people publishes 60 books in one month (July) with the entire production being done in-house. With these numbers, I’d expect the quality of their published books to reflect the variable quality of their authors, not their overworked editors.
The first book is Tracy J. McKenzie’s Idolatry in the Pentateuch: An Innertextual Strategy. Sven Petry of Georg-August-Universität Göttingen recently reviewed the book in RBL, and his extensive critique at the conclusion of his review speaks volumes. He begins saying, “I must admit that I am not sure how to evaluate this volume.” This is never a good sign. He summarizes the book’s contents again, this time with a focus on things that academically are either unjustified, uninteresting, or already well established. He also mentions the lack of sufficient editing. (Wipf and Stock take note!)
He then lays down the gauntlet:
Further, I suppose I have difficulties understanding and valuing McKenzie’s arguments because I come from a different world and speak a different language—and here I do not think in terms of geography. What I read shows me how large the gap between my notion of academic critical scholarship and McKenzie’s evangelical ideas are. Although I consider myself “critical,” I (as many other critical scholars) do believe that the final shape of the biblical text does matter. In this regard I fully consent to the opening sentence of chapter 1: “A central concern for Old Testament theology is an understanding of the final shape of the canon” (27). But while I regard a concept of the stages of textual growth as beneficial to this understanding, McKenzie’s concept of authorship that equalizes “author” and “composer” (49–50) sweeps away the value of any likely textual development prior to the final shape.
Petry raises an important point that often goes unrecognized by evangelical scholars who eschew historical criticism. Nonevangelical critical scholars can be just as enthusiastic about the final shape of the biblical text as an evangelical scholar. The difference between these and evangelical scholars is that critical scholars take seriously the claim that this is the final shape of the biblical text. Critical scholars acknowledge and examine both earlier and later forms of the text. Many evangelicals believe the “final shape of the biblical text” is the only shape—the only shape that matters or the only shape that has ever existed.
But Petry is not finished. He then raises the question of the function of “innertextuality” in this study. Now I should mention that I am writing a dissertation on “intertextuality,” and I argue most biblical scholars who use this term, evangelical or otherwise, are guilty of engaging in a practice that is un-academic. What I found to be interesting are the religiously motivated ends to which McKenzie so casually wielded this unwieldy nominalization.
Third, I simply do not get the point of “innertextuality.” If innertextuality actually does not say much more than that two texts are intentionally connected, that is, somehow related, the term does not contribute anything new and therefore is dispensable. Following McKenzie’s notion and terminology, the presence of “innertexts” should raise questions of tradition and dependence. But in fact innertextuality is presented as if it was the answer. I can hardly avoid the impression that the term’s purpose is to provide a category for observations that in the critical realm would raise questions McKenzie refuses to answer. As he presupposes the Pentateuch as a “unified textual work, the direction of dependence is not necessary to know” (50). Therefore, while McKenzie’s book may have its value within the evangelical realm, from the perspective of critical, that is, academic, biblical scholarship, it is not necessary to read.
Again, I want to stress that “intertextuality” as it occurs most frequently in biblical studies is a problematic term. It often serves as a one-size-fits-all academic signifier for a theoretically and/or methodologically under-developed idea. But I think Petry is on to something when he observes that McKenzie’s use of it allows him to sidestep tradition- and source-critical questions.
The second book I want to consider was written by Deuk-il Shin, The Ark of Yahweh in Redemptive History: A Revelatory Instrument of Divine Attributes. (I do not know why the advertised subtitle departs from the subtitle on the picture of the book’s cover.) David G. Firth of St. John’s College (Nottingham, UK) reviewed this book recently in RBL. Like Petry, he has concerns about the “theological position” of the book.
It is clear from the above summary that Shin is operating from a very conservative theological position, and this impacts the whole work. The book’s strength is that it shows that a consistent reading of the ark across the Old Testament is possible and that traditio-historical interpretations are not necessarily required. That is, a synchronic reading of the text can present a coherent interpretation of the ark. But in a sense, that is also its weakness. It is because Shin starts with this as a presupposition that we do not really get to see substantial arguments that show that his approach is a better interpretation of the data. This concern particularly emerges in his reading of the historical texts that discuss the ark where, beyond the importance of reading the Bible from the perspective of Reformed theology, we do not really encounter a clear method for showing how these texts reveal the aspects of Yahweh’s character that he suggests. In the end, Shin’s conclusions present his presuppositions in more detail than noted at the outset, but his conclusions are still his presuppositions. So, while his conclusions might be correct, and there is an attractive degree of coherence to his reading, the book lacks the methodological rigor that would establish them as probable.
Firth’s assessment intrigues me for a couple of reasons. Having published numerous books with InterVarsity Press, an evangelical publishing house, Firth operates within evangelicalism. This criticism does not come from outside evangelicalism. (Perhaps I have framed the question in my title in too binary a mode.) Furthermore, Firth does not seem altogether opposed to Shin’s conclusions; rather, he questions the foundation upon which these conclusions are established.
Notice how Firth distinguishes between presuppositions and “substantial arguments.” When critical scholars talk to many evangelicals today, the conversation will often arrive at the question of presuppositions. The idea that the critical scholar begins with problematic assumptions becomes a kind of trump card, a way of prematurely ending the conversation or academic debate. Firth argues, to the contrary, that presuppositions must be established by methodological (i.e., academic) rigor. Otherwise, all one has to go on are one’s presuppositions. Presuppositions alone are simply not the basis of a rigorous academic approach to the Bible.
The answer to the question of this post depends on one’s perspective. I would suggest that evangelical scholars need to take seriously the critique of these two recent monographs if they intend for their work to participate in the theoretical and methodological rigor of academe.